What is terrorism? Why words matter

Terrorism is distinguished by the particular heinousness of its acts. Picture: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard.

Every new terrorism outrage inevitably provokes furious debate, particularly of the “But what about…?” kind. Such arguments are a common response to reports of Islamic terrorism – or indeed, any report of terrorism – but they are also a depressingly fallacious and characteristic of that partisan intolerance that currently reduces all debate to mere name-calling.

Part of the problem, though, is that “terrorism” is a somewhat slippery word. There is no small truth to the adage that one man’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter”. Efforts to hone in on a single, universal definition are troubled – not least because obscuring the meaning of terrorism is so useful to those will ill-intent. Using words like “terrorism” so loosely obscures the impact of actual terrorism, allows authoritarian governments to redefine legitimate groups as “terrorist” and allows terrorists to hide under the banner of freedom fighters.

Still, despite disagreement over the exact definition of terrorism, most serious efforts to define terrorism agree on some essential characteristics, which fall under three broad categories: terrorist acts, targets and purposes.

Terrorist acts are criminal acts, first and foremost.

Military action by nation-states, whether or not we agree with them, are not terrorist acts; nor are police acts.

Terrorism is restricted to non-state actors. “Although states can terrorise,” says international relations scholar Audrey Cronin. “By definition they cannot be terrorists.” Illegal acts of violence by state actors are war crimes. Collateral damage in war is not illegal, even if it is terrible.

Further, terrorist acts are not merely illegal by law (mala prohibita) but inherently immoral by nature (mala in se). Terrorism is often characterised by crimes that are notably heinous and atrocious.

Terrorism is also defined by its targets.

The targets of terrorists are almost always innocent civilians or non-combatants. Terrorism also aims to affect more than its immediate victims. Instead, usually by virtue of their peculiar hideousness (whether blowing up teenage girls at a pop concert in Britain, or shoppers at a market in Afghanistan) terrorist acts are directed at a society at large.

Non-combatant military or police may also be the target of terrorism, such as when Nidal Hasan murdered 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood army base.

Terrorism has a purpose.

Terrorist acts are committed in the pursuit of political, religious, ideological or social objectives. They are designed to coerce or intimidate a civilian population or affect government policy.

Just as it’s important to accurately define what terrorism is, it’s also critically important to define what terrorism is not.

This is not just a bland semantic argument. Too broad a definition of terrorism facilitates the persecution of political enemies. For instance, the Chinese government labels Uighur Muslims terrorists in order to justify its crackdown. Left-wing activists label right-wing groups like Proud Boys “terrorists” in order to demand their exclusion from social media. Right-wing activists label Antifa “terrorists” for similar reasons.

It’s also common for anti-gun activists to label all mass shootings as “terrorism”. But almost all mass shootings are carried out, if for any purpose at all, for personal reasons. Martin Bryant, for instance, had no real objective. Even Dylan Roof had only the vaguest, most incoherent notion of “race war”. On the other hand, Brenton Tarrant had a very specific set of objectives.

It should be noted, too, that mental illness does not preclude terrorism. Most mass shooters are mentally ill without being terrorists; some terrorists are also mentally ill. In fact, it is a common tactic for terrorism recruiters to target mentally ill people in their community.

Not all political violence is terrorism.

A common, but erroneous usage of terrorism is “violent action for political purposes”. But, by that definition, even a brawl at a political rally is “terrorism”: a self-evidently ridiculous claim that would potentially license all manner of authoritarianism in the name of “counter-terrorism”.

While it’s very fashionable to try to demonise people whom one might be ideologically opposed to as “terrorists”, most often that is childish nonsense. Very few people, even violent people, are actually terrorists. Throwing ideologically-charged words like “terrorism” around as mere swearwords cheapens public debate and demeans the victims of genuine terrorism.

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