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 without discussing the historical context of the terrorist campaign. This is so important that the second part of the text is designed to familiarize you with historical developments in world history.
Modern terrorism originated from the French Revolution (1789–1795). It was used as a term to describe the actions of the French government. By 1848, the meaning of the term changed. It was employed to describe violent revolutionaries who revolted against governments. By the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, terrorism was used to describe the violent activities of a number of groups including: labor organizations, anarchists, nationalist groups revolting against foreign powers, and ultranationalist political organizations. After World War II (1939–1945), the meaning changed again.
As people revolted from European domination of the world, nationalistic groups were deemed to be terrorist groups. From about 1964 to the early 1980s, the term terrorism was also applied to violent left-wing groups, as well as nationalists. In the mid-1980s, the meaning changed again. In the United States, some of the violent activity of the hate movement was defined as terrorism. Internationally, terrorism was viewed as subnational warfare. Terrorists were sponsored by rogue regimes. As the millennium changed, the definitions of terrorism also changed.
Today terrorism also refers to large groups who are independent from a state, violent religious fanatics, and violent groups who terrorize for a particular cause such as the environment. It is important to realize that any definition is influenced by the historical context of terrorism. Conflict The meaning of terrorism fluctuates around various types of war. In times of conventional war, armies use commando tactics that look very much like terrorism. In the American Civil War, the Federal Army unleashed Major John Anderson to destroy Confederate railroads.
The Confederates captured Anderson and accused him of being a spy, but he remained a hero in the North. He did not wear a uniform, and he did not fight by the accepted norm. Armies routinely use such tactics in times of war and never define their actions as terrorism. In guerrilla war, guerrillas use terrorist tactics against their enemies and may terrorize their supporters into submission. In total war, air forces may destroy entire cities with fire. The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) did so at Stalingrad in 1942, and the British and American Air Forces did the same at Dresden in 1945. Neither side believed it was practicing terrorism.
While it is possible to cite many other examples and endless contradictions, you should realize that the definition of terrorism changes with the nature of conflict. The term terrorism is more likely to be employed to describe violent activity that explodes during a peaceful period. Political Power The definition of terrorism depends on political power. Governments can increase their power when they label opponents as “terrorists. ” Citizens seem willing to accept more abuses of governmental power when a counterterrorist campaign is in progress. “Terrorists” do not enjoy the same humanitarian privileges as “people. In the public mind, illegal arrest and sometimes even torture and murder are acceptable methods for dealing with terrorists. Labeling can have deadly results. Repression Closely related to the issue of power is the concept of repression. Some governments routinely use terrorism to keep their citizens in line. Such repression can sometimes be seen in the political structure of the country as leaders use secret police forces to maintain power. Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953 through terror, and Saddam Hussein rules Iraq by similar methods.
Latin America has witnessed several rulers who maintain power through repression, many times with help from the United States. Repression can also develop outside formal political structures. This is called extrajuridical repression. It refers to repressive groups who terrorize others into certain forms of behavior. Political repression is a form of terrorism, but people seldom refer to this form of violence when defining terrorism. Media Journalists and television reporters frequently use the term terrorism to define political violence. However, there is no consistent standard guiding them in the application of the definition.
Many times they employ the term to attract attention to a story. Terrorism, when defined by the media, is relatively meaningless. Crime You might think that criminals and terrorists represent two different types of violent behavior. Some analysts would agree, but confusion remains. A few years ago, a Presidential Commission on criminal justice stated that it was necessary to look at the motivation of a criminal act to determine whether it was a terrorist action (National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1976). When a crime is politically motivated, the report says it is terrorism.
The problem with this approach is that a crime is a crime no matter what motivation lies behind the action. Except in times of conflict or government repression, all terrorism involves criminal activity. Even in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not file most political crimes under the heading of terrorism in its Uniform Crime Reports. Religion In recent years, religion has played a more significant role in the process of terrorism. This is fully examined in Chapter 4, but it is important to understand that extreme religious beliefs provide a context for defining terrorism.
Religious violence centers around three sources (White, 2000). First, some religious groups feel they must purify the world for a new epoch. This can be defined as violent eschatology. Second, some groups feel they are chosen and may destroy other people in the cause of righteousness. This type of attitude can lead to violent intolerance and religious war. Finally, other people may become so consumed with a particular cause that they create a surrogate religion and take violent action to advance their beliefs. Ecological terrorists serve as an example of this type of pseudoreligious errorism. Specific Forms Sometimes the term terrorism is defined within a specific context. A detailed look at weapons of mass destruction is presented later in this book under the heading of technological terrorism. Another specific form of terrorism refers to computer attacks, viruses, or destruction of an information infrastructure. This is called cyberterrorism. Finally, drug organizations frequently use terrorist tactics, and some terrorist organizations sell drugs to support their political activities. Some analysts use the term narcoterrorism to describe this type of violence.
Retired FBI counterterrorist specialist William Dyson (2000, in press) argues these issues are not separate forms of terrorism. Rather, they are modes of attack used by political terrorists. Changing Contexts Can you think of other contextual factors that influence the definition of terrorism? The list is probably endless. Regardless, it is enough to be aware that the definition of terrorism changes with political and social contexts. Terrorist analyst Alex Schmid (1983) says no matter how we define terrorism, the definition will always fluctuate because the context of violent activity changes.
We cannot define terrorism. With that weakness in mind, it is time to look at some of the more popular definitions. SOME COMMON DEFINITIONS The most widely used definition in criminal justice, military, and security circles is a rather simple view fostered by Brian Jenkins, a widely known counterterrorist security specialist, and Walter Laqueur, another leading authority from Georgetown University. They defined terrorism separately but arrived at remarkably similar conclusions. Jenkins offers a definition he has frequently used while consulting with security forces.
Jenkins (1984) calls terrorism the use or threatened use of force designed to bring about a political change. In a definition closely related to that of Jenkins, Laqueur (1987, p. 72) says terrorism constitutes the illegitimate use of force to achieve a political objective by targeting innocent people. He adds that attempts to move beyond the simple definition are fruitless because the term is so controversial. Volumes can be written on the definition of terrorism, Laqueur writes in a footnote, but they will not add one iota to our understanding of the topic. In a later work, Laqueur (1999, pp. 8–10) romotes a simple definition, only arguing that meanings and definitions fluctuate with history. Both Jenkins and Laqueur freely admit problems with their simple approach. Neither definition limits the topic, and there is no meaningful way to apply a simple definition to specific acts of terrorism. Simple definitions also leave academicians, policymakers, and social scientists frustrated. In short, simplicity does not solve the problem presented by Professor Cooper. Yet, Laqueur intimates, it is necessary to live with the problems and weaknesses of the simple definition because terrorism will always mean different things to different people.
With this in mind, examine the positions of Laqueur and Jenkins. From a security perspective, Laqueur’s conclusion makes sense: terrorism is a form of political or criminal violence using military tactics to change behavior through fear. This simple approach does not solve the political problems of definition, but it allows security personnel to move beyond endless debates. Anyone charged with counterterrorism is trying to prevent military-style criminal attacks against innocent people in a noncombat area. But definitions hardly stop with pragmatic simplicity.
Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain outlawed terrorism more than a decade ago, and America has examined the idea of a legal definition (Mullendore & White, 1996). The beauty of legal definitions is they give governments specific crimes that can be used to take action against terrorist activities. Beyond that, they are quite useless because they account for neither the social nor the political nature of terrorism. More important, they can be misused. Violence is the result of complex social factors that range beyond narrow legal limitations and foreign policy restrictions.
Political violence often occurs during the struggle for legitimacy. For example, American patriots fought the British before the United States government was recognized. Legal definitions also contain internal contradictions. Under the legal guidelines of the United States, for example, some groups can be labeled as terrorists, while other groups engaged in the same activities may be described as legitimate revolutionaries. In addition, governments friendly to the United States in Latin America have committed some of the worst atrocities in the history of the world in the name of counterterrorism.
Ironically, some Latin American revolutionaries who oppose our repressive friends espouse the rights expressed in the U. S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, yet we refer to them as terrorists. Legal definitions are frequently shortsighted. Martha Crenshaw (1983) says terrorism cannot be defined unless the act, target, and possibility of success are analyzed. Under this approach, freedom fighters use legitimate military methods to attack legitimate political targets. Their actions are further legitimized when they have some possibility of winning the conflict.
Terrorists fail to meet the legitimacy test in one of the three categories: military methods, military targets, and some chance of victory. Crenshaw also suggests revolutionary violence should not be confused with terrorism. To Crenshaw, terrorism means socially and politically unacceptable violence aimed at an innocent target to achieve a psychological effect. Such analytical distinctions have helped make Crenshaw a leading authority on terrorism, but two problems remain. Whoever has the political power to define “legitimacy” has the power to define terrorism.
In addition, the analytical definition has not moved far from the simple definition. During the Reagan administration (1981–1989), it became popular to define terrorism in terms of national policy. Analysts pointed to terrorist states that used terrorism to attack American interests. Neil Livingstone (Livingstone & Arnold, 1986, pp. 1–10) lists five powers that served as the former Soviet Union’s client states. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1986, pp. 5–15) called the West to arms against the terrorist states. If you accept this logic, it solves the definitional dilemma.
Terrorists were shadow warriors from Libya, Syria, Bulgaria, East Germany, and North Korea under the command of the former Soviet Union’s Bureau of State Security (KGB). However, the state-sponsored definition fell on hard times, even before the collapse of the Communist empire. James Adams (1986) thoroughly demonstrates that terrorist groups are not and never were controlled by sponsor states. Michael Stohl (1988, pp. 1–28) sounds another caveat. Some terrorist states did indeed offer logistical support and sympathy to terrorist groups, but their overall impact was insignificant.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the arguments of state sponsorship dwindled. Although some terrorists hiding in East Europe were arrested (the East Germans turned over names and addresses of the Red Army Faction to the new German federal police, for example), the nature of terrorism shifted in the last part of the twentieth century. Terrorism is too complex and too significant to be controlled by nation-states. A different definition comes from Edward Herman (1983), who says terrorism should be defined in terms of state repression.
Citing corrupt Latin American governments, Herman argues that repressive policies have resulted in more misery for more people than any other form of state-sponsored terror. In a separate publication, Michael Stohl (1988, pp. 20–28) sounds a sympathetic note, claiming terrorism is most frequently used by governments to maintain power. Walter Laqueur (1987, p. 6) says such conclusions are correct, and one would be foolish to deny that state repression has caused less suffering than modern terrorism. Yet, Laqueur argues, governmental repression is a long-term political problem, separate from modern terrorism.
To include it in the discussion confuses the issue and does little to enhance our understanding of terrorism. In an effort to solve the definitional dilemma, Alex Schmid (1983, pp. 70–111) tries to synthesize various positions. He concludes there is no true or correct definition because terrorism is an abstract concept with no real presence. A single definition cannot possibly account for all the potential uses of the term. Still, Schmid says, a number of elements are common to leading definitions, and most definitions have two characteristics: someone is terrorized, and the meaning of the term is derived from terrorists’ targets and victims.
Schmid also offers a conglomerated definition of terrorism. His empirical analysis finds 22 elements common to most definitions, and he develops a definition containing 13 of those elements. Schmid sees terrorism as a method of combat in which the victims serve as symbolic targets. Violent actors are able to produce a chronic state of fear by using violence outside the realm of normative behavior. This produces an audience beyond the immediate victim and results in a change of public attitudes and actions. Some scholars believe Schmid has solved the definitional dilemma by combining definitions.
Others think he has refined the undefinable. While analysts wrestle with the problem, most end up doing one of three things. Some follow the lead of Crenshaw and Thomas Thorton (1964, p. 73) and look for illegitimate violence instead of political revolution. Others follow the lead of Schmid, either synthesizing definitions or using those of others. Finally, some people ignore the problem altogether. They talk about terrorism and assume everybody knows what they mean. See Box 1. 1 for a summary of the common definitions of terrorism and Box 1. 2 for a list of some official definitions that are used.