Defining Terrorism

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If people around the world were surveyed and asked to define terrorism, the answers would be seemingly endless. It has been said, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” From culture to culture, people view terrorism in a different way. An inherent definition of terrorism would be the act of creating terror, but not everyone is terrified of the same thing. So how then is it possible to come up with one definition for the word? “A 2003 study by Jeffrey Record for the US Army quoted a source that counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements.”[1] In the book Understanding Terrorism, the author Anthony Marsella comes up with “four problems associated with efforts to define terrorism today: (a) there have been historical changes in the definition, (b) media and states have been inconsistent in their use of the term, (c) there are multiple definitions across agencies even within a single country such as the United States, and (d) there is international disagreement on the definition of the term.”[2]

Some views of terrorism say that it must have political goals, while other do not believe this. Some views state that it must be innocents or civilians who are the victims, while other definitions do not believe this. Another argument is whether or not the terrorists must be non-state actors. Definitions are different based on whether they were created for legal purposes or international agencies. In this paper, I will go through some of the different arguments in order to provide a clearer sense of what terrorism truly means in this day in age.

Most books written on terrorism begin by giving a definition of the word in the author’s opinion in order to put it into context for the remainder of the book. The entire first chapter of Bruce Hoffman’s book Inside Terrorism is dedicated to trying to define terrorism. Terrorism now seems to be a part of our everyday life. It appears as though every act of violence is perceived as being ‘terrorism.’ Every time violence occurs people immediately think terrorism. The term terrorism is so hard to define and there is so much controversy about how to define it that it is easy to make the assumption that all violence is terrorism. At the same time, because of the controversy, many media sources are reluctant to use the word. Instead, they give attacks different titles. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines terrorism as the “systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, especially into acceding to specific political demands.”[3] This definition might satisfy Hoffman because he believes it must be stressed that terrorism is the use or threat of violence to achieve a political aim.[4] Without a political aim, there cannot be terrorism. Nor can there be terrorism without the threat or use of violence. Hoffman believes it is difficult to define terrorism because of its ever-changing meaning throughout history. A factor that makes defining terrorism difficult is that the definition has changed over time. The original definition of the word is no longer the definition used today. The word originally gained support during the French Revolution as part of the “Reign of Terror.” The purpose was to scare people in order to prevent further revolutions from occurring. The terror was created by the state. Although the definition has changed since the “Reign of Terror,” there are two points that are similar in today’s definition. “First, the regime de la terreur was neither random nor indiscriminate, as terrorism is often portrayed today, but was organized, deliberate, and systematic.”[5] Terrorists plan out their attacks, they are not random or spur of the moment. Targets in present day are often chosen based on what will receive the most media attention. “Second, its goal and its very justification was the creation of a “new and better society” in place of a fundamentally corrupt and...
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