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Of all crimes, “terrorism” may be the hardest to understand. Ordinary unlawful activity is defined by what it is. Theft is taking something which belongs to someone else. Murder is intentionally ending someone else's life. Driving through a red light is doing what the traffic regulations say you cannot do.
But terrorism is something else. Here's one definition:
|the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.|
Violence itself is usually illegal. You cannot hurt another person except in self-defense. And even then, we'd prefer that no one gets hurt.
Intimidation, too, is often against the law. If you threaten to hurt someone else, you are admitting to planning a crime. Even if you are intimidating someone by calling them in the middle of the night to annoy them, that's still harassment. It's still considered to be bad for society, and is thus illegal.
But terrorism, again, is something else. It's not violence and intimidation, it's violence—often against civilians to promote a political purpose.
What does that mean?
Suppose there is a statue in a public square which represents something you disagree with, and decide to tear it down. Is that terrorism?
Checking the definition, the willful destruction of public property is certainly illegal. It's a form of violence and is obviously intended to intimidate other people. And your reason for tearing it down is political. So that makes it sound like terrorism. Right?
But not if it's the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue in Iraq in 2003. Or one of Joseph Stalin in Hungary in 1856. Or when colonists tore down a statue of King George III back in 1776. Those don't feel like terrorism, do they?
Perhaps a more sobering example is needed. In late August 2021, a suicide bomber outside of the Kabul Airport killed 183 people. This included 13 members of the American military, and hundreds of Afghan civilians. That feels like terrorism. But if we rewind a few years, an air strike in March 2017 in the city of Mosul caused the deaths of 278 civilians. This bombing was conducted by the American military. And of course we would never call that “terrorism.”
There's no good way to decide what is and is not terrorism.
The honest, actual truth is that we use the word “terrorism” mostly because it is politically advantageous. There is no test we can apply to determine if it's genuine terrorism. And it's not as if academics and experts have an exact definition either .
If there is anything which is associated with terrorism that hasn't been covered yet, it's “extremism.” That is, beliefs which are (a) uncommon and (b) far outside the mainstream. But even this doesn't help. About half of all Americans are opposed to the use nuclear power to generate electricity . That ratio doesn't sound “extreme” at all. Yet, not many people would support a private citizen trying to damage a nuclear power plant during its construction . That sounds like terrorism, even though being anti-nuclear is quite common.
We use the word “terrorism” mostly as a way to use a tragic situation to our political advantage. If someone acted because they had been convinced to do so, we can blame that organization or movement. And because they are “terrorists” we can dismiss them as evil.
Maybe what would help would to spend less time worrying about whether something is “terrorism” and more time trying to figure out what has motivated actions that we consider wrong.
Because if we know why something is happening, then we have a real chance to do something about it.
 But this happened. In France in 1982.