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Monday, January 26, 2024
Defining Terrorism
By Steven Taylor @ 7:59 pm

As James Joyner notes today, building on a post by Citizen Smash, defining terrorism is not an easy as it looks. On the one hand, one is tempted to employ a logic similar to the one used by Justice Potter Stewart when he stated, concerning pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material … but I know it when I see it.”

I recently wrote a chapter on the topic of democracy and terrorism in Colombia for the an upcoming book on the general topic of terrorism and democratization. For that project I utilized the following:

As is customary, I will offer my own definition for usage in this piece, which builds on Cooper’s definition (2001, 883): “[t]errorism is the intentional generation of massive fear by human beings for the purpose of securing or maintaining control over other human beings” but with the addition that the fear is question is generated by aiming violence at non-combatants. As such, terrorism is irregular warfare directed not at the state, but at the citizens of the state for the purpose of generating fear, so that the civilian population will, in turn, pressure the state to act. Groups rely on terroristic tactics because direct confrontation with the state will not yield the desired results, i.e., direct military confrontation will not result in the defeat of the state. For the sake of a coherent discussion of political violence, I would argue for at least three categories: conventional war, guerrilla war and terrorism. This list does not exhaust the universe of collective political violence by any means, but it does provide a basis for the discussion of the Colombian case. Perhaps more specifically: terrorism is a tactic, which can be employed in both conventional and non-conventional conflicts. Failure to recognize that fact leads to further confusion in an already complex discussion. Indeed, in this I concur with Merari: “[i]f the definition of terrorism is equally applicable to nuclear war, conventional war and guerrilla, the term loses any useful meaning” (1993, 217). This is not to say that states cannot engage in activities that cause fear in a population (indeed, total war is waged, at least in part, to scare civilians populations enough that they will want their governments to surrender). However, as horrific and violent as such activities can be, I find them to be their own category of action, and therefore not terrorism, per se.

This definition would define Sherman’s march to sea as something other than terror, and would leave the attack on the Pentagon as somewhat ambiguous, but I would argue that the goal of that attack was the generation of societal fear to cause policy change, not to inflict actual military damage, so I would consider it terrorism.

And to semi-address Smash’s question about terrorism being in the eye of beholder. The simple answer is yes; but it also depends on whether one is trying to develop a dispassionate, analytical definition, or if one wishes to to address how events might be categorized by casual (or not so casual) observers. I’m sure the citizens of Hiroshima (those who survived) considered the bombing a terror-inducing act, but analytically it strikes me as problematic to call it terrorism. It doesn’t diminish the horror of such as event to say that, but rather such classification is an attempt to use language as precisely as possible.

Sources Noted Above

Cooper, H. H. A. (2001). “Terrorism: The Problem of Definition Revisited,” American Behavioral Scientist 44 (February), 881-893.

Merari, Ariel. (1993). “Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency.” Terrorism and Political Violence. 5 (Winter), 213-251.

Filed under: War on Terror | |Send TrackBack

Wizbang linked with Terrorism is a tactic, not a label
PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » Outside The Beltway linked with [...] tactic accurately describes its basic operation. I see terrorism (and I defined it online here) as the specific targetting of civilians in order to foment fear, which, in turn, in created in [...]


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    1. […] tactic accurately describes its basic operation. I see terrorism (and I defined it online here) as the specific targetting of civilians in order to foment fear, which, in turn, in created in […]

      Pingback by PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » Outside The Beltway — Friday, December 31, 2024 @ 9:31 pm

    2. Terrorism is a tactic, not a label
      For a brief moment, I thought James Joyner had gone over the edge. Then I noticed it was a guest poster Leopold Stotch. I don’t remember a time I’ve disagreed both so intellectually and viscerally with Stotch. I was all…

      Trackback by Wizbang — Friday, December 31, 2024 @ 9:55 pm

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