Defining Terrorism

The ‘Who’ and the ‘Why’ Confuse Debate Making Coherent Policy Unattainable

Opinion | Samuel Schubert | April 2007

Some six years after 911 and well over forty since the age of modern terrorism began, a consensual definition of the term continues to elude politicians, diplomats and scholars alike.

The question is why.  The answer is a great deal simpler than one might think.

Everyone agrees that terrorism is violent, politically motivated and morally abhorrent.  But that is where the harmony ends and all our difficulties in defining as well as combating the phenomenon begin. Indeed, although many in government, media and academia agree that terrorism is blatantly obvious when it occurs, there remains little agreement on precisely which acts deserve the label.

Defining terrorism is not so difficult when it is described by its characteristics.  Terrorism is an act of political violence or threat thereof that targets noncombatants in pursuit of political change or power.  It is a tactic of war, a method, not a movement and at a tactical level, a highly successful one at that.  Furthermore, terrorism has become the weapon of choice for non-state actors engaged in asymmetric conflicts, or the weak at war with the strong.  Those who commit such acts are distinguishable from criminals by their political motive and from soldiers by their specific targeting of noncombatants.  In fact, when powerful states or professional soldiers do specifically target noncombatants, it is known as barbarism, not terrorism, and for the record, the former is far worse than the latter.

Still, many wish to define terrorism less by what it is and rather by who carries it out. Yasser Arafat exemplified this position in 1974, when with a pistol strapped to his hip proudly proclaimed before the United Nations General Assembly that "the difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights," adding, "Whoever stands by a just cause … cannot possibly be called terrorist."

Arafat thus set the standard for many who engage in legitimate struggles, by justifying indirect violence against civilians in otherwise just wars.  His line of argument was central to the IRA, ETA, the Tamil Tigers and more recently Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, all of whom consider themselves engaged in legitimate struggles.

This perception gap between the virtue of a conflict and the choice of target and method is not semantic and largely absent from discussions in mass media.  It should therefore come as little surprise that the definition of terrorism found in legislation across and within countries is inconsistent, depending immediate objectives, political turf wars and an overall poor understanding of the phenomenon. Phrases like the "War on Terror" or desperate and oft fantastically-constructed theories about the root causes of terrorism only make it worse.

The truth is, political violence is central to the human struggle and has been so since antiquity.  Defining it has so far helped no one to stop it.  Indeed, to do so may very well be a Sisyphean task.

    ~Samuel Schubert

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