August 17, 2011

The pursuit of the definition of “terrorism” has proven to be a formidable task that is personally useful for some. The standard dictionary definition,

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes,

clearly conflicts with accepted usage, for if it were believed then any military activity, or even police activity, would constitute a terrorist activity. Other definitions come closer to the intended meaning:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). [Attributed by Wikipedia to Carsten Bockstette.]

Obviously, military activity would often fall within those terms if it were not for the “asymmetrical” condition. Such activity, when considered legitimate by the speaker, is never referred to as “terrorism”. On the other hand, this condition makes it impossible to have terrorism by a military, which clearly contradicts common usage. Systematic campaigns of massacre by a military are often referred to as “terrorism”. Thus, the definition is inaccurate either with or without the “asymmetrical” condition.

It appears to me that the reason for the difficulty in finding an accurate definition is the idea that “terrorism” can be defined solely in terms of the physical activity of the agent in question or its effects on those affected by it. This, I think, is simply untrue. It seems that this idea ignores a crucial factor, which is the perception of legitimacy of aims and methods. This implies that a policy – defined in terms of the ways violence is used – would be described either as “terrorist” or in different terms, based on circumstances that have nothing to do with the policy itself or its foreseeable effects.

The perception of legitimacy – and thus the decision of whether to apply the term “terrorism” – is in fact dominated by the perception of intent. If the violent actor is perceived as using violence against noncombatants deliberately or without justification then the actor is a terrorist. The same acts, when perceived as being due to error or “necessity” would not be termed so.

Now, intent is of course extremely difficult to determine objectively. Almost any act can be described as being motivated by good intentions. In a bind, one can concede that the act itself was wrong, but still ascribe good intentions to the perpetrator. This last position is very common in American media as regarding military activity of the US or its allies, when things are such that it is no longer feasible to pretend that widespread targeting of civilians doesn’t occur. The perpetrator is then described as having been naive or errant, but not a terrorist. The terrorist attacks non-combatants because he is morally degraded, not because he must or because he legitimately, even if mistakenly, believes it serves a greater good.

In light of the above, I propose the following as a definition of terrorism:

Terrorism is defined as violent victimization of civilians, deliberately or through negligence, unless justified by unavoidable needs stemming from the genuine pursuit of legitimate or worthy objectives.

It may be inferred that

Insisting in general terms that one is very scrupulous in making sure civilians are not harmed is thus an important (but not sufficient, or even strictly necessary) step toward not being considered a terrorist. It is much more important than the particulars of any policy or event.

Whatever may be the advantages of this definition in terms of accurately capturing the sense in which the term “terrorism” is used, its drawback is clear: it explicates the notion that the term (as it is used) is inherently subjective, and thus completely useless as a tool for rational discussion. According to such a definition, the term is little more than a device of propaganda, reinforcing pre-conceived points of view. Taking seriously the quip about the subjectivity of the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter (or, even more problematically, between a terrorist and a soldier) may be inconvenient.


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