Defining Terrorism

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The subject of terrorism is both complicated and emotive. It is complex because it combines so many varied aspects of human experience, including arenas such as politics, social discourse, psychology, philosophy, military strategy, and history, to name a few. Terrorism is also emotive both because experiences of terrorist acts arouse tremendous feelings, and because those who see terrorists as justified often have strong feelings concerning the morality of the use of violence. Without a doubt, terrorism evokes strong feelings whenever it is discussed. Terrorism is a global phenomenon that is easily recognised yet difficult to define. Academics across the world describe it according to their political and socio-economic conditions; therefore the word ‘terrorism' is interpreted to suit different interests. The following discussion explores the importance of the definitions of terrorism and their consequences, both politically and socially.

What is terrorism?

The perpetual discussion of what constitutes terrorism has been debated for centuries. Presently, there are countless different legal and adopted definitions of what in fact constitutes an act of terrorism. An explicit definition has been sought by the United Nations (UN) for 2 decades, however; member nations have not been able to form a bilaterally accepted definition. This may not have a direct influence on social outcomes, but policy makers and academics require some sort of definition in order to identify the phenomenon and to justify law enforcement actions. The UN's academic consensus definition, written by terrorism expert A.P. Schmid and widely used within social science, runs:

"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 (organisation), (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."

Another widely accepted, and perhaps less elaborate definition of terrorism is offered by Yonah Alexander. He defines terrorism as:

"The use of violence against random civilian targets in order to intimidate or create generalised pervasive fear for the purpose of achieving political goals"

Further proposed by A.P. Schmid: an act of terrorism is the "peacetime equivalent of a war crime.

In conclusion to his lengthy discussions in distinguishing acts of terrorism from other types of violence, B Hoffman lends an appreciation to the fact that terrorism is:

§Ineluctably political in aims and motives;
§Violent – or equally important, threatens violence;
§Designed to have far reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate target or victim; §Conducted either by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) or by individuals or a small collection of individuals directly influenced, motivated, or inspired by the ideological aims or example of some existent terrorist movement and/or its leaders; and §Perpetrated by a sub-national group or non-state entity.

There is a seemingly endless bevy of varying definitions of terrorism, yet all of these definitions lead towards terrorism as a concept and have certain common features. One primary concept is evident in all descriptions; terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political....
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