Saturday, 24 March 2007

Defining 'terrorism'...

Throughout this month, I will be posting excerpts of my lengthy paper "The War on Terror and the Fire Paradox", as mentioned in this post. Here is one such excerpt...

We spend so much talking about terrorism — including on this very blog — yet the word itself has many definitions. What are they? Which do we follow? Which should we follow? Before we delve further into the hotbed that is terrorism, maybe we should examine what terrorism is.

'Terrorism', 'terror', 'terrorist'...
The term 'terrorism' originated from the state-led Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. It is commonly applied to political violence by insurgents, that is, unless the terrorism is perpetrated by the state, in which case it is state terrorism. However, terrorism is a generic word with many applications of acts wishing to incite fear, hence my usage of "terrorist insurgents", "insurgent terrorists", or the like, even if the movement is not concrete (most aren’t).

In addition to its practical usage, the philosophical meaning of 'terrorism' is disputed. One delves into semantics and linguistics, as well as politics and psychology. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy's entry for "terrorism" states it as "a highly emotive, pejorative label" (Gilbert). There are two sides to the broad label. Terrorism can be considered as an "unjust war model", like that of 'freedom fighters' or militant rebels, neither as state actors, for a justified reason, or as a crime that is unique only in the fact that it is politically motivated — to cause fear.

The United Nations, the global body, offers several definitions for terrorism on their UNODC website:

The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The UN Member States still have no agreed-upon definition. Terminology consensus would, however, be necessary for a single comprehensive convention on terrorism, which some countries favour in place of the present 12 piecemeal conventions and protocols.

The lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism has been a major obstacle to meaningful international countermeasures. Cynics have often commented that one state's "terrorist" is another state's "freedom fighter".
4. Academic Consensus Definition:
"Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby - in contrast to assassination - the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought" (Schmid, 1988).

The standard dictionary definition for "terrorism" is the use of force or violence to accomplish political motives of change, often against an authority; or the state of fear from the use of terrorism. There is disagreement between the dictionaries — whether it be Webster or American Heritage or Oxford or Random House or WordNet — over the status of 'terrorism' as a criminal act. One issue is that conventional militaries and insurgent forces (the most common use for "terrorist") both use violence as a method of change and to create fear in the enemy, or otherwise.

Terrorism is not of conventional war as we think of it, which defies the premise of a ’war on terror’, which is a political term, even more. By definition, there cannot be a war on terror; and if there is, you cannot fight an ideology. You can fight a specific group or movement of individuals, though using the term ’war’ in that case would still be a big stretch, misleading at least. Justification — not legitimacy — defines how we see terrorism, and how the word is used.

Wikipedia's "Definition of terrorism" entry quotes some convenient texts:
Few words are as politically or emotionally charged as terrorism. A 1988 study by the US Army...counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements. Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur in 1999 also has counted over 100 definitions and concludes that the "only general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence".
The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as "a policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorising or condition of being terrorised."

Webster's New International Dictionary defines terrorism as the "act of terrorizing, or state of being terrorized; specif.: a The system of the Reign of Terror. b A mode of governing, or of opposing government, by intimidation. c Any policy of intimidation."

The definition of the term in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics (2nd edition) begins: "Term with no agreement amongst government or academic analysts, but almost invariably used in a pejorative sense, most frequently to describe life-threatening actions perpetrated by politically motivated self-appointed sub-state groups."

The American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism as "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons."

The Online Etymology Dictionary refers to terrorism as the "systematic use of terror as a policy" and describes the word's origin in the specific sense of "government intimidation during the Reign of Terror in France".

Random House via
ter·ror·ism –noun
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.
[Origin: 1785–95; terror + -ism]

Encyclopedia Britannica defines "terrorism" as:
the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police.

1 comment:

mon said...

Thanks for the useful info.. nice to have a clear and concise definition of 'terror' B-)