September 06

What is Terrorism, and Why We Need to Define It

Dr. Dan Friedman

While Alice is Through the Looking Glass she argues with Humpty Dumpty over his use of the word “glory” to denote not the usual meanings of the word but “a nice knock-down argument.” He responds scornfully: “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.” Their debate cuts to the heart of language: if a word does not have an agrdeeed-upon definition, but has only a subjective, idiosyncratic, and contingent intention behind it, then it fails to convey anything other than a set of arbitrary phonemes. It is not a word, but a sound.

Unlike Humpty’s definition of “glory,” the definition of terrorism is no abstract semantic problem but a pressing and fundamental question. Five years on from the atrocities of 9/11, no single issue is as vital, occupies as much global attention or has such a hold on the global purse as ‘terrorism.’ It is the cause, ostensibly, of the present wars and occupations in the Middle East. It has provoked the spending of hundreds of billions of counter-terrorism dollars. And it has spawned obsessive, continuous coverage of the subject on the internet, the broadcast media, and by Hollywood. But no one, including the experts, knows exactly what it is. We are left like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, faced with the task of defining obscenity, felt he “could never succeed in intelligibly doing so,” and so preferred to simply say, “I know it when I see it.”

Yet how we define ‘terrorism’ determines how we identify it, how we best counter it, and how we define the limits of what our societies find acceptable. In this article, I will first explore the linguistic meanings of the term "terrorism," identifying two distinct strands, or chains, of the terrorist episode: the act (or threat of action) by one party against another, and, secondly, the way that act is covered, communicated, and by being communicated, fulfilled. And I will conclude by exploring how our failure to define terrorism exculpates ourselves and perpetuates the cycle of violence we seek to fight.

1. The Medium is the Message: All Language is Political

The term "terror" in its modern political sense was initially used by Robespierre as a badge of pride for his purging of the regressive monarchic elements of revolutionary France. “Terror, he said, "is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.” (See Robespierre’s “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy,” online at Yet the term was quickly taken up as a term of abuse by, among others, Edmund Burke (see the San Francisco Chronicle for a brief history). In other words, from its beginning the meaning of the word "terror" has been contentious.

Today, there is no single accepted definition of the term, despite literally hundreds of definitions of ‘terrorism’ online, including several ones from different branches of the world’s primary counter-terrorist agent, the U.S. government. The debate over its definition is so clearly an aspect of the phenomenon of terrorism that Wikipedia even carries an entry for the “Definition of terrorism” separately from its entry on ‘terrorism.’ The entry states that “The definition of terrorism is inherently controversial” and notes, with self-justifying glee, that “ ‘Terrorism’ has never been defined…” (36 Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 2&3, 2004, p. 305)

Clearly there are some commonalities among the definitions -- violence, fear, intention to affect groups for ideological reasons – but different groups stress different aspects. The FBI stresses the criminal violence of terrorism in its description of terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (emphasis added) Note that the FBI's definition does not mention the deliberate targeting of civilians, just the intimidation of them. Nor does it, presumably, mean "unlawful" in the sense of international law, since by that standard the U.S. incursion into Iraq and most of Israel's military actions in the West Bank would constitute terrorism. The Department of Defense's definition similarly stresses the unlawful nature of the violence and the intentionality of the terrorists and their targets, defining terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

The Department of State, in contrast, specifies the type of actor and defines terrorism as “premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” The United Nations -- often useful for providing an unratified conclusion -- here only notes a few of the alternatives that might be agreed upon, assuming that a consensus could indeed be agreed upon. (See

The UNDOC attempt to define ‘terrorism’ as the “peacetime equivalent of a war crime” falls short in two regards. First, because wartime and peacetime are so culturally distinct (“all’s fair in love and war”), it would be as easy to just define ‘terrorism’ as to translate a war crime into peacetime. Second because in the age of militancy definitions and declarations of ‘war’ are unclear as non-state actors and clandestine organizations take on larger states using physical and cultural guerilla tactics – if we are fighting a “War on Terror” then surely our soldiers are wartime combatants, if we are organizing a global policing action then are our own actions in killing opponents ultra vires?

Finally, and perhaps by now unsurprisingly, many prefer not to use the term at all. Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: the True Story of Radical Islam and a ‘terrorism’ expert, prefers the word “militancy” to describe the situation rather than specific acts. Foreign Affairs magazine, the journal of record for international conflict, refuses to use the term at all because of the inescapable stance it implies; one of its editors even explicitly called it a political word. Not surprising, given the “War on Terror” and what it means.

What is going on? First, the term's ambiguity feeds its politicization. A fighter one likes is a "freedom fighter;" one who is disliked is a "terrorist." Israel fights "terrorists" in Lebanon -- or commits "state terrorism" in the West Bank. Depending on one’s stance Al-Qaeda operatives are “terrorists” on planes, or are “freedom fighters” against the US hegemony. Is a Hamas jihadist a terrorist if he only attacks soldiers? To Israel, yes; to others, no. Thus to apply the word to a given party is, essentially, to take a stand regarding it.

Second, political terms are misused deliberately all the time. This is not just some Orwellian nightmare or a paranoid reading of awkward bureaucratic phraseology. Nor is it confined to combatants. Rather, it has been a stated and explicit objective of Republican leaders since before even the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. In the GOPAC memo “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Newt Gingrich ( provided a list of useful words and phrases to use against opponents regardless of their policies, positions or context. Perhaps this Machiavellian disregard for substance is just common sense, but it has worked quite well. Indeed, the difference is often quite subtle; the continued Republican refusal to allow others linguistic self-determination is still very much alive in their characterization of the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” Party (see a subtle difference, but a deliberate one.

Top Image: Loren Ellis, Running over the Brooklyn Bridge to Safety. Lower image: Loren Ellis, Still Standing
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