Friday, July 21, 2006

What Is Terrorism?

That seems like an obvious question. What is terrorism? But I think we are in danger of losing sight of what it is exactly. And once we do that, we lose sight of what makes the United States (and other countries, of course) better than the people we call terrorists.

This is really a simple question, and it deserves a simple answer.

Terrorism is any attack which targets civilians.

So why are we losing sight of what terrorism is? Well, to answer that, we need to discuss what terrorism isn't. Not all suicide attacks are terrorism. People seem to think that anyone who walks into a crowd of US soldiers and blows himself up is a terrorist. This simply isn't so. Misguided, perhaps (see my post titled (Just?) War for more on that determination), but not terrorist. Similarly, just because a combatant isn't in a military uniform doesn't mean that he's a terrorist. If uniforms were important, then any time our soldiers shoot at a non-uniformed combatant they would be engaging in terrorism.

I've also heard people accusing Israel of engaging in terrorism in the recent fighting in the Middle East. This is simply not the case. Yes, civilians die due to the attacks by Israel. But civilians are not the target. Civilians almost always are harmed in any major combat, but collaterally, not intentionally. In the recent fighting in particular, Hezbollah is more at fault for civilian deaths in Lebanon than the Israelis who fire the missiles because Hezbollah puts their military equipment adjacent to civilians.

By way of analogy, if Cobra Commander straps children to the front of a tank, it doesn't make G.I. Joe a terrorist when the children get hurt in any attempt to disable the tank. It makes Cobra Commander the jerk (although perhaps not a terrorist, because a further refinement to the definition of terrorism would be that they target civilians from the enemy nation).

The same critics of Israel also say that they are terrorist because they target civilian infrastructure in their attacks. Characterizing infrastructure as "civilian" in this instance may be erroneous. This line is not as obvious as you may think. Surely, the World Trade Center was civilian infrastructure, as it had only civilian/economic purposes. But take our Interstate system in the US. For foreigners who don't know, this is a complex national highway system. It could certainly be called "civilian" infrastructure if you wanted to do that, but it would be an oversimplification. Any time the military needs it, they can deny civilians access to the system. A large reason for building it in the first place was to provide a method for the military to move equipment and troops quickly. Therefore, an attack on the Interstate system is not necessarily a terrorist attack. It could be, if the reason for the attack was to harm civilians in the process, but if you do it to slow down the military then it's not terrorism.

So why is the definition of terrorism important? We need to remember why terrorism is evil, so that we can defeat it. We can never legitimize this kind of tactic--the Spanish government has lost all credibility in my mind (and the minds of all terrorists) because they capitulated to terrorism (and therefore legitimized it). If there's one positive thing you can say about George W. Bush, it's that he will never legitimize terrorism. He might blur the line to make himself look better, but he won't legitimize it.


  1. Hmm. Well I think one of the "success" stories in fighting terrorism was the UK, where the IRA, while still in existence, and still causing trouble in ireland, has certainly left england alone after targetting it through the 80s. Why? Because we started talking to them. Would it have helped to bomb dublin? I severely doubt it.

    I would actually define terrorism thusly- an attack targeting civillians which aims to get certain political goals accomplished. This way you exclude simple maniacs who go around with a gun and shoot civillians, and take in terrorist organisations of all kinds, as they all have some kind of political goal, no matter how ludicrous.

    Terrorists tend to be defined by the big guys. The fire bombing of Dresden, for example, was designed to target civillians but was not called terrorism because it was the allies doing it. I feel the attacks on lebanon are, if not terrorism, certainly the actions of a state that knows it can get away with it. If you say that a state that has a group inside it that attacks you is responsbile for those attacks, then its ok to attack civillians in that state, which is basically what Isreal is doing. It's pure revenge, and it's completely out of proportion to the scale of attacks- by all reports Hezbullah is not getting hurt, but the people of the Lebanon are.

    Also, when you talk about Spanish capitulation, do you mean ETA, or the attack killing many? The reason a new government was voted in was because the current government LIED and blamed ETA, causing outrage, and thus losing themselves an election. The opposition party had a platform of withdrawing from Iraq, and so incidentally the actions led to the terrorists "winning" but it was not directly due to that.

  2. Very interesting post, and an apropos question to ask. Taking a step back from a debate and examining its underlying premises and defitions upon which it depends is always a worthwhile endeavor.

    I tend to side with the Wikipedia definition, which states:

    Terrorism refers to a strategy of using violence, or threat of violence to generate fear, cause disruption, and ultimately, to bring about compliance with specific political, religious, ideological, and personal demands. The targets of terrorist attacks typically are not the individuals who are killed, injured, or taken hostage, but rather the societies to which these individuals belong. Terrorism is a type of unconventional warfare designed to weaken or supplant existing political landscapes through capitulation or acquiescence, as opposed to subversion or direct military action. The broader influence of terrorism in the modern world is often attributed to the dramatic focus of mass media in amplifying feelings of intense fear and anger.

    State terrorism more specifically refers to violence and threats of violence, embargoes and other forms of terrorism against civilians by the government of a state.

  3. Well Kelly as I pointed out recently in another blog, if we exmaine the actual usage of the term in western media (which is where most of us encounter it) one finds that "terrorism" is always applied selectively based upon allegiance of the participants and how they further western "interests".

    The KLA in Kosovo were designated by the State Dep't as terrorist up until 1998. However around that time they became of strategic use in further weakening Yugoslavia and making it more amenable to economic exploitation.

    So even though this armed group (who carried out numerous cross border attacks from Albania) were classed as terrorist, they ended up receiving NATO air support in 1999 and 2000 and were no longer officially classified as terrorist.

    You define terrorism based upon you perception of what is morally justifiable and what is not or so it seems from reading your post.

    Well here is a US Army manual defintion of terrorism (and this is something Chomsky has talked about rather a lot) "terror is the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear."

    This is a pretty good defintion and one that clearly proves Israel to be engaged in terrorism right now on a truly massive scale. This is why I consider Israel to be engaged in mass terrorism and why a recent CNN poll revealed 55% of the respondents to share this view.

    Trying to seriously claim the Israeli military are not engaged in terrorism is an exercise in desperation in my view.


  4. All: your slightly varying definitions for terrorism are very good ones. I think what I was trying to zero in on is what makes terrorism wrong, whereas your definitions try to see it from the point of view of the terrorists themselves (also perhaps a worthwhile endeavor). But I would like to point out that the goals that they are trying to accomplish are to be met through the acquiescence of other nations, and acquiescence sounds a whole lot like a term you may remember from your history classes: appeasement. We already learned our lesson with Germany, and I don't think we'll be forgetting that lesson any time soon.

    Mr. K: talking to them may work, depending on the group. For some reason, I doubt that talking to groups like Al Quaeda will make any difference. I could be wrong though.
    I honestly don't know enough about what's happening in Israel and Lebanon right now to determine whether or not what Israel is doing is justified, but if the Language Guy is to be believed, then Israel is certainly within its rights.
    As to the Spanish capitulation, it doesn't matter that it was, as you say, incidental. The terrorists (including ETA) know that creating fear in the populace is a good way to get votes for a party that will capitulate to their demands, so perhaps the blame lies more with the Spanish people than with their government.

    Mister Pregunto: yes, that is exactly the right question, and that's why I defined terrorism in this way rather than by trying to state the goals of terrorism.
    I think there is such a calculus. The rules of it are not entirely clear to me, but I believe that we all have an inherent sense of right and wrong that can lead us to the right conclusions. Also see my post on just war (linked in blog post) for a framework for how to think about those issues.

    TG: your definition is a little broader than what I was looking at. I'm not sure if state terrorism can really be considered terrorism under my definition. I certainly hadn't had economic warfare of any kind in mind.

    Hugh: your concerns as to how the media use the word "terrorism" are well-founded, and very much a spur to my writing this post. I do define it based on what is morally justified, but I do not focus on goals in defining terrorism (as the media appears to do and which you clearly, and rightly, reject)--I focus on tactics.
    I'm still not convinced of your conclusions as to Israel's alleged engagement in terrorism, however.

  5. I've always thought of terrorism being defined by the word "terror." The main difference between terrorism and other forms of combat is that it is designed not only to kill civilians, but to make other civilians afraid.

    So my definition of terrorism would be something like this:

    An action targeting civilians with the intention of inciting fear in order to advance a political goal.

    Defining terrorism by saying "any attack which targets civilians" is a bit too broad, in my opinion. I think the definition is in the intentions of the attacker. A terrorist may attack civilians, but it is not effective strategy
    unless you make other civilians afraid for their lives.

    For example, after the WTC attacks, the US didn't only lose lives and buildings. For months (and probably still today), people were afraid to fly. The airline industry nearly went under.

    Further, imagine that a terrorist had a "laser" on the moon, which was pointed at a major city and would fire unless the US government gave him one million dollars. Would this not be a terrorist act, even if he did not carry out the attack? It certainly still strikes fear into the hearts of civilians and causes mass terror.

    On a sort-of related note, a while ago, I read about a High School marching band in Florida that was not allowed by the school to go to a parade in England for fear of terrorism. One of the parents was quoted as saying that you don't see busses and trains blowing up in America. No shit? You know what DOES blow up in America? Buildings? Planes, maybe? Terrorism doesn't work unless we let it. If people don't let terrorism scare them, then the only thing we lose in a suicide bombing is a bus and 20 people. If we let it scare us, then we lose our way of life.

  6. Khorbin, I think you're absolutely right in every way. I like your definition, but I would drop the "in order to advance a political goal" because it legitimizes it, even if only slightly. I'm going to embellish it a bit as well.


    Terrorism is an action targeting civilians (whether by violence or threat of violence) with the intention of inciting fear in other civilians.

  7. Excellent question! New blog post coming soon to attempt to answer it.