Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Defining terrorism

[Editor's note: Cross-posted at Times & Seasons.]

By request, this morning I am going to talk about defining terrorism. The first important thing you need to realize is that there is no single widely accepted definition, either in academia or in the policy world. Everyone uses their own. So we're going to talk about how you can build your own definition of terrorism.

The second important thing to realize is that any definition of terrorism is going to make some people happy and some people unhappy. Your definition does not need to please everyone, but you should be able to defend it. To do this, you have to realize what it is you like about your definition. What quality (or qualities) about your newly built definition satisfy you? This is your standard, the yardstick with which you are measuring the goodness of any definition of terrorism.

Be explicit. If you like yours because it's very broad and inclusive, say so. If you like yours because it's narrow and exclusive, say so. And try to think about why you like that particular standard-- what's good about broadness, or narrowness, or whatever? Given your definition's virtues (and deficiencies), what is it good for? What makes it useful? What questions will it help you to answer? What are its limitations?

Your definition will also be judged by what it includes and what it excludes. It may exclude groups or acts which some people consider terrorism, and so they will judge your definition to be defective. It may include groups or acts which some people do not consider terrorism, with the same result. Again, remember that you cannot please everyone. All definitions are arbitrary to some degree. Pick a definition you like, and which you can defend.

So, let us begin.

We're going to be constructing your definition in a modular fashion. We're going to consider five individual elements of the definition separately. I am going to lay out some of the questions which must be answered by any definition of terrorism. Your answers to these five questions will guide you in the construction of your own definition.

1. How much action is required? Most people consider terrorism to be some variety of violent action. But definitions do not agree on the amount of violence which is required. Is a threat enough, or must there be a physical act? Must the action be successful, or is an attempt enough? If actual violence is required, does the violence need to involve injury to human beings, or is property damage enough? If property damage is sufficient, then how much property damage is required for you to consider an action to be terrorism? (What about graffiti? Is there a dollar amount of damage required? Or do you want to lean on established legal definitions and say that it must be a certain class of misdemeanor, or a felony?) If human injury is required, what level of injury do you require? (Hospitalization? Crippling? Death?)

2. How much organization is required? Can a single individual acting on his own be a terrorist? (Ted Kaczynski, for instance.) What about a single individual, who feels sympathy for a larger movement, and who acts to advance the goals of that movement, but is not a member of a larger organization? (Examples which might fit here include Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammed.) Or does terrorism require multiple people working together, as part of a formal organization?

3. Can actions by the state be considered terrorism? Although the word "terrorism" was coined to describe actions carried out by the revolutionary French state, most contemporary definitions of terrorism explicitly exclude state action. One notable exception is prominent leftist activist Noam Chomsky, whose writings on terrorism focus almost exclusively on the actions of states-- the United States and Israel in particular. Most other scholars and policymakers define terrorism as an action by non-state actors.

There is still a gray area here, though, since several states sponsor violent extremist groups whose actions they do not completely control. How closely affiliated with a state can a group be without having their actions be considered a state action? For instance, the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades are considered to be a wing of the Fatah political party, which was in power when the Brigades were formed in the Second Intidada. (The Sinn Fein likewise has an armed wing-- the Provisional IRA-- but as Sinn Fein has become persuaded that they have a chance at governing, they have disavowed violent action. In 2005, the Provisional IRA itself renounced violence.) The Columbian state has also given official support at times to right-wing paramilitary groups using terrorist tactics, in order to fight against left-wing terrorists and guerillas. Again, the question is, how much support can a state offer and still deny responsibility?

4. Are certain intentions or goals required? Most definitions state that terrorism is an action which is intended to cause a psychological response-- fear. Many definitions also require terrorists to have political goals. This is especially important if you believe that a single individual, with no membership in any larger organization, can be a terrorist. Is a serial killer a terrorist? A mugger or bank robber? What about an extortionist? If not, what distinguishes such a criminal from a terrorist? What about an organization whose goals are so out-of-this-world that they can hardly be called political? Agents of the quasi-religious movement Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on a Tokyo subway for reasons that are murky, but arguably include the desire to bring about the end of the world. Is this a political goal? If not, then what about Islamist terrorists who want to bring about the return of the Caliphate, or the Mahdi, or a unified global Islamic state? These goals are also religious, and no more likely to occur. Is this other-worldliness offset by other, more limited goals such as the overthrow of specific governments in the middle east, or the end of US financial and military support for Israel?

5. What targets are acceptable? Many scholars consider terrorism to be a phenomenon aimed at non-combatants. Military personnel are fair game, in this formulation, because they have chosen this profession and in so doing accepted the inherent risks. Violence directed toward military personnel is defined instead as a kind of unconventional warfare. On the other hand, what about attacking military personnel when they are sleeping in their barracks? What about attacking military personnel when they are out of uniform and off duty in a disco? Or why make the distinction at all? On September 11th, were the soldiers in the Pentagon less the victims of a terrorist attack than the civilians in the twin towers?


So, those are the five questions I have to ask. Other scholars might ask additional components, but I think that any serious definition of terror must include answers to at least these five questions. Use your answers to build your definition. Feel free to post yours in the comments, and to explain why you chose as you did.


UPDATE Craig S. posts a thought-provoking response over at Splendid Sun.

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