THE CONTEXT OF TERRORISM
Terrorism beams into our homes through television screens, it assaults us in newspapers and magazines, and it sometimes touches our lives in more direct manners. People do not seem to worry about the definition of terrorism at such times. They simply feel terror when they see the violence. Sometimes it seems as though the event itself defines terrorism. For example, when a plane is destroyed by a bomb, it is frequently called terrorism, but when military forces shoot down a civilian aircraft, it can be deemed an unfortunate mistake. The United States may launch missiles at a suspected terrorist base and claim it is defending national interests. Yet, it may condemn another country for doing the same thing in another part of the world. Dual standards and contradictions lead to confusion any time the term terrorism is employed. The term terrorism has spawned heated debate. Instead of agreeing on the definition of terrorism, social scientists, policymakers, lawyers, and security specialists often argue about the meaning of the term. H. H. A. Cooper (1978, 2001), a renowned terrorist expert from the University of Texas at Dallas, aptly summarizes the problem. There is, Cooper says, “a problem in the problem definition.” We can agree that terrorism is a problem, but we cannot agree on what terrorism is. There are several reasons for confusion. First, terrorism is difficult to define because it has a pejorative connotation. (Pejorative means that it is emotionally charged.) A person is politically and socially degraded when labeled a terrorist, and the same thing happens when an organization is called a terrorist group. Routine crimes assume greater social importance when they are described as terrorism, and political movements can be hampered when their followers are believed to be terrorists. Further confusion arises when people intertwine the terms terror and terrorism. The object of military force, for example, is to strike terror into the heart of the enemy, and systematic terror has been a basic weapon in conflicts throughout history. Some people argue that there is no difference between military force and terrorism. Many members of the antinuclear movement have extended this argument by claiming that maintaining ready-to-use nuclear weapons is an extension of terrorism. Others use the same logic when claiming that street gangs and criminals terrorize neighborhoods. If you think that anything that creates terror is terrorism, the scope of potential definitions becomes limitless. One of the primary reasons terrorism is difficult to define is that the meaning changes within social and historical contexts. This is not to suggest that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” but it does suggest the meaning fluctuates. Change in the meaning occurs because terrorism is not a solid entity. Like crime, it is socially defined, and the meaning changes with social change. This chapter examines some common definitions of terrorism. These definitions are worth reviewing, but it is more important to understand that definitions of terrorism are not very helpful. You need to understand the context of the definition before applying the term. The definition of terrorism always changes with social and historical circumstances. As a result, terrorism presents a problem. Akin to the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, we do not know how to define terrorism, but we know what it is when we see it. It seems that H. H. A. Cooper is indeed correct. We have a problem in the problem definition. Some Common Contexts of Terrorism
Before reviewing definitions of terrorism, it is helpful to examine the meaning of terrorism within specific frameworks. It is more helpful to list the context of terrorism than to memorize a variety of definitions. The following are some contextual issues to consider. History The meaning of terrorism has changed over time. It is almost impossible to talk about terrorism...
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