The definition of terrorism
This article addresses the definition of terrorism. It is intended to provide a foundation from which to understand the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although terrorism appears to be much less dangerous than other forms of violence, it seems to command more attention. In order to respond to terrorism, a clear definition is necessary. Terrorism is defined by Title 22 of the U.S. Code as politically motivated violence perpetrated in a clandestine manner against noncombatants. Experts on terrorism also include another aspect in the definition: the act is committed in order to create a fearful state of mind in an audience different from the victims. Whether or not an act is considered terrorism also depends on whether a legal, moral, or behavioral perspective is used to interpret the act. If a legal or moral perspective is used, the values of the interpreter are the focus rather than the act itself. A behavioral perspective appears to be best suited for interpreting and reacting to terrorism.
What Is Terrorism?
My aim in this paper is not to try to formulate the meaning the word ‘terrorism’has in ordinary use; the word is used in so many different, even incompatible ways, that such an enterprise would quickly prove futile. My aim is rather to try for a definition that captures the trait, or traits, of terrorism which cause most of us to view it with moral repugnance. I discuss the following questions: Is the historical connection of terrorism with terror to be preserved on the conceptual level, or relegated to the psychology and sociology of terrorism? Does mere infliction of terror qualify as terrorism, so that we can speak of non-violent terrorism? If terrorism is a type of violence, does it have to be against persons, or should violence against property also count? In what sense can terrorism be described as indiscriminate violence? Should we use the word only in a political context? In such a context, can we speak of ‘state terrorism’, or should the word be restricted to actions not sanctioned by law? Is the terrorist necessarily oblivious to moral considerations, as those who define terrorism in terms of antinomianism imply? My answers to these questions lead up to the following definition: terrorism is the deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating them, or other people, into a course of action they otherwise would not take.
The Strategies of Terrorism
Terrorism is designed to change minds by destroying bodies; it is a form of costly signaling. Terrorists employ five primary strategies of costly signaling: attrition, intimidation, provocation, spoiling, and outbidding. The main targets of persuasion are the enemy and the population that the terrorists hope to represent or control. Terrorists wish to signal that they have the strength and will to impose costs on those who oppose them, and that the enemy and moderate groups on the terrorists’ side cannot be trusted and should not be supported. Each strategy works well under certain conditions and poorly under others. State responses to one strategy may be inappropriate for other strategies. In some cases, however, terrorists are pursuing a combination of strategies, and the response must also work well against this combination.
How New Is the New Terrorism?
This article aims to challenge the dominant view that the expressions of terrorism since the last decade of the twentieth century are fundamentally new. It questions the new aspects of terrorism, such as the transnational nature of the perpetrators and their organizations, their religious inspiration and fanaticism, their use of weapons of mass destruction, and their indiscriminate targeting. It points out essential continuities with previous expressions of terrorist violence, such as the national and territorial focus of the new terrorists, their political motivations, their use of conventional‐ weaponry, and the symbolic targeting that is still aimed at achieving a surprise effect. The article calls for more thorough historical investigations in order to appreciate truly new aspects of terrorism.
As the nineteenth century ended, it seemed no one was safe from terrorist attack. In 1894 an Italian anarchist assassinated French President Sadi Carnot. In 1897 anarchists fatally stabbed Empress Elizabeth of Austria and killed Antonio Canovas, the Spanish prime minister. According to the State Department’s annual report on the subject, fewer people died last year in incidents of international terrorism than the year before. Such figures, however, are almost meaningless, because of both the incidents they disregard and those they count. Current definitions of terrorism fail to capture the magnitude of the problem worldwide. History shows that terrorism more often than not has little political impact, and that when it has an effect it is often the opposite of the one desired. Terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s is no exception. Nevertheless, terrorism’s prospects, often overrated by the media, the public, and some politicians, are improving as its destructive potential increases.
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The definition of terrorism