What Is Terrorism?

What Is Terrorism?Nearly 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, we’re tempted to approach “terrorism” the way Supreme Court Justice Stewart approached hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In reality, the term “terrorism” is profoundly political, as shown by the numerous definitions of terrorism and the lack of a globally-accepted description. The myriad definitions show nations struggling to define “terrorism” in self-serving ways. Efforts to clarify and unify those definitions vary from legalistic to nearly bombastic. Given the many definitions from different nations, organizations and even within the U. S., there have been: at least one legalistic attempt to lay the groundwork for a universal definition; at least one more cutting attempt to dispel the self-serving political “fog” surrounding these definitions. The common thread in both approaches is the appeal to diplomatically weigh competing national interests to form a workable worldwide definition of “terrorism.”

Recital of all the world’s “terrorism” definitions would take at least 1 thick volume. Suffice it to say there are different and sometimes conflicting definitions of “terrorism” presented in: The UN General Assembly Resolution 54/109 (1999); the Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism (1998); the UN Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004); the European Union (2002); The United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act (2000); France’s Criminal Code, Article 421-1 and -2; and Canada’s extensive Anti-Terrorism Act §83. Meanwhile, the UN Member States still have no universal definition of terrorism at all because “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” which is a significant obstacle to worldwide anti-terrorism efforts.

You’d think that at least the United States would have a uniform definition of “terrorism,” wouldn’t you? Well, we don’t. Within the U.S. there are numerous definitions of “terrorism,” including:

1. 18 U.S.C. §2331: “[Terrorism is]…activities that involve violent… or life-threatening acts… that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and… appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and…(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States…”

2. US Patriot Act of 2001: “Terrorist activities include:
i) threatening, conspiring or attempting to hijack airplanes, boats, buses or other vehicles;
ii) threatening, conspiring or attempting to commit acts of violence on any “protected” persons, such as government officials
iii) any crime committed with “the use of any weapon or dangerous device,” when the intent of the crime is determined to be the endangerment of public safety or substantial property damage rather than for “mere personal monetary gain”

3. U.S. Army Manual: “Terrorism, for the purposes of this training circular, is the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals.”

4. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms: “Terrorism: 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.”

5. U. S. State Department: “[Terrorism is] premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

6. Federal Bureau of Investigation – 28 C.F.R. §0.85: “[Terrorism is] [t]he 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.”

As nations struggle to define terrorism, the conflicting viewpoints and interests become obvious in the sheer number of their definitions, all focusing on a single word: “terrorism.” Even within the United States, separate governmental departments rely on separate definitions. In the face of these burgeoning and changing definitions, scholars have attempted to find a common ground from which we might globally define terrorism. While the search for common ground is still extremely difficult, some scholars have made significant inroads.

Susan Tiefenbrun, a lawyer and Director of “The Center for Global Legal Studies,” uses a formal, legalistic approach called the “Semiotic Approach.” According to Tiefenbrun, Semiotics is the “science of signs” which looks for “hidden meanings, connotations and denotations” in an effort to unify apparently disparate definitions. Her first step in this approach is a return to a legal basic: Black’s Law Dictionary. This widely-used legal staple defines “Terrorism” as “The use or threat of violence to intimidate or cause panic, esp. as a means of affecting political conduct.” From that very simple definition, Tiefenbrun then examined many definitions and defined five fundamental elements of terrorism:
a. “The perpetration of violence by whatever means;
b. The targeting of innocent civilians;
c. With the intent to cause violence or with wanton disregard for its consequences;
d. For the purpose of causing fear, coercing or intimidating an enemy;
e. In order to achieve some political, military, ethnic, ideological, or religious goal.”

Using Tiefenbrun’s approach, we can examine each element against the backdrop of multiple definitions. Examining the first element, she found that while “violence” is not specifically mentioned in some definitions, it is certainly at least an implied element of all. She also explores the meaning of violence, concluding that it is not confined to physical acts or injuries; rather, “Violence has many forms and degrees of severity. However, an act is violent only if it causes harm to persons and things. Violence in any form can inspire terror in its victims and in those indirectly affected by the violence.” The second element, the targeting of “innocent civilians,” is more problematic in an attempt to reach a global definition: who is an innocent civilian? How many must be killed to constitute terrorism? Does war reduce the killing of innocent victims to mere collateral damage? As Tiefenbrun states, unanswered questions such as these and others militate against a global definition of terrorism. The third element’s “wanton disregard” is easier to grasp, according to Tiefenbrun, because criminal courts have long-defined the required mental state for criminal activity; however, her explanation makes no reference to a broad-based agreement on the element of “wanton disregard” across global legal systems. She states that the fourth element’s use of “fear” is problematic because it is a psychological condition rather than a legal element; meanwhile, “coercion” and “intimidation” have already been defined by courts. Her explanation does not show global unity about the meanings of “coercion” and intimidation. According to Teifenbrun, the fifth element’s, “political, ethnic, ideological, or religious” goals are common implied elements of definitions but the addition of “military goal” creates difficulty because its inclusion in a global definition would require people in war to avoid using tactics normally used in war, even a civil war of “liberation,” but condemned in peacetime as “terrorism.” Examining the conflicting interests and paradoxes of terrorism’s definitions, she concludes that the five defined elements are legitimate and that a global definition is difficult but not impossible. She asserts that despite competing interests, nations can weigh the relative importance of their competing interests, much as judges do when reaching a decision. Though Tiefenbrun seems to take the universality of some definition elements for granted, her appeal to weigh interests is solidly based.

Another approach to developing a unified definition of terrorism is espoused by Pierre Tristam, a journalist who is both a native of Beirut, Lebanon and a naturalized U.S. citizen, educated in American schools. Tristam contends that defining terrorism is “contentious” only from those who wish to hide from the definition’s implications. Quoting Robert Fisk, a fellow journalist, Tristam maintains that “terrorism” no longer means terrorism: “It is not a definition. It is a political contrivance. ‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word.” Tristam pointedly highlights American acts that could be construed as “terrorism” by the victims: “The Marines’ massacre of civilians at Haditha in Iraq, the American military’s deliberate bombing of civilian targets in Vietnam, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (neither of which, he dubiously claims, had military value), the British and American razing of European cities in World War II.” Referring to these acts as “State terror,” Tristam argues that Western apologists, in particular, ease our consciences about those acts by saying that there are no “innocent civilians” in “total war.” Attacking that tendency, Tristam demands an honest self-assessment from each nation regarding the “terrorist” methods it employs and excuses, then he urges all nations – particularly Western nations – to shed the “political contrivance” in defining terrorism, acknowledge our own culpability and arrive at this simple definition: “Violent acts directed primarily at civilian targets, or that produce primarily civilian casualties, are acts of terrorism. So are violent acts directed at any imprisoned individual, soldiers or guerillas included – especially those held illegally, without charge, which makes Guantanamo’s detainees hostages, not prisoners.” Tristam’s biting indictment of competing nations’ supposed cognitive difficulties with defining “terrorism” is an edgy approach that seems to dispel considerable political fog but also seems unlikely to achieve global acceptance.

In sum, Tiefenbrun and Tristam both argue for a balance of competing interests. Tiefenbrun’s approach is the more formal, legalistic Semiotic approach to the elements of a workable definition. Meanwhile, Tristam’s approach is confrontational, dismissing the supposed “difficulty” of reaching common ground and attributing that difficulty to sheer self-interest. Using either approach, the path to a global definition appears to lie along a realistic balance of competing interests.

Kathy Catanzarite

[Note from This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]