Terrorism has become one of those nebulous terms that is difficult to define in the modern era. When used in different contexts, it can have a number of different meanings, and this is what makes it such a politically charged word. Some believe that it is overused in fact, while others claim that its use is most often in an attempt to cobble together sufficient outrage among the population. Defining terrorism requires one to take into account context and synthesize some of the opinions of the many scholars who have pontificated on this particular subject.
Some theorists have counted at least one hundred different definitions of terrorism. Some have argued that terrorism is simply the employing of tactics that would be considered war crimes if they were not committed during a time of peace. Others argue that terrorism is defined by it intent. By that, they mean that terrorism is primarily defined by the intent of the actor to cause terror in a population. In Argentina, there is a particularly troubling definition of terrorism, as the government only considers something to be terrorism when the person committing the crime is acting in opposition to “Christian” or “Western” ideals (Ganor, 2002). In effect, they limit terrorism to something that can only be committed by a person who employs Middle Eastern or Eastern ideals. The vast majority of definitions, and perhaps the definition that is most suitable, is one that mentions the intent of the actor to influence government or policy (Young, 2006). Under this definition, what defines an act as terrorism is the intent of the actor to use the violent act in order to intimidate or otherwise influence a government to alter its policy or approach (Hoffman, 1986). Under this arrangement, terrorism does not just have to be limited to war crimes, but rather, it could be anything from a bombing to a shooting to the act of hijacking a plane. So long as it is an act of violence with the decided intent of causing political change in an enemy government, then it can be considered terrorism for definitional purposes.
When looking at terrorisms, there have been a number of events in the course of history that have shaped our understanding of terrorism. In September of 1968, amid protests about the relationship between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, three bombs were detonated in Tel Aviv (Bogen & Jones, 2006). This killed one person, and the event injured more than fifty. This was significant because it helped to establish the bombing method that has been a part of the terroristic game plan ever since. Likewise, it established some of the norms in that part of the world. Israel has had to deal with terror threats and attacks ever since, as this type of covert, guerilla warfare has been waged over the political question of Israel’s right to exist in its current form.
In addition, one can scarcely discuss terrorist attacks without discussing the attacks of September 11, 2011. This quite obviously was the hijacking of four planes in the United States by members of Al Qaeda (Ai et al, 2005). This changed the course of terroristic history in a tangible way, as airport security had to be tightened to prevent future attacks (Goodrich, 2002). On top of that, this helped to establish a high level of fear in the US, and in response, the US passed the Patriot Act, which surrendered many American freedoms in the name of security (Etzioni, 2012).
In terms of terrorism, several key terms must be understood. Resilience refers to the capacity of terrorist groups to bounce back after they are beaten down by bigger governments. In addition, this term can apply to countries – like the United States, for example – that are able to come back stronger after suffering from a terrorist attack. A domestic threat actor is a person who presents a legitimate threat from within the country, while an international threat actor presents a threat from the outside. Often, domestic terrorism comes in the form of politically motivated action designed to stop a specific policy within the country. International threat actors tend to be motivated by bigger, overarching trends. Globalization refers to the shrinking of the world and the inter-connectedness of the world. In the context of terrorism, globalization has been both a motivation for terrorists and a means of organizing. It has allowed terrorist groups to move more freely from place to place, striking across the globe.
Social construct refers to the way that society has decided to view certain aspects of the world. For instance, our understanding of threat levels tends to be a social construct that we have come up with in order to manage what we deem to be a very scary situation. Civil disorder refers to disturbances where multiple people present the threat of immediate violence. This is a term used by law enforcement to discuss a state of affairs in a country where things are quite unstable. In the terrorism context, noncombatants or civilians are considered to be people who are not involved in the violent struggle. They are people who are usually off limits in terms of attacks, though they can sometimes be killed as a result of unintentional or collateral damage. Containment is another important word, which refers to the strategy employed by governments in trying to shut down terrorism. Under a containment strategy, a government would look for ways to ensure that the effects of a terrorist organization were not harming the country. This is a more indirect way of approaching the problem.
- Ai, A. L., Cascio, T., Santangelo, L. K., & Evans-Campbell, T. (2005). Hope, meaning, and growth following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(5), 523-548.
- Bogen, K. T., & Jones, E. D. (2006). Risks of mortality and morbidity from worldwide terrorism: 1968–2004. Risk analysis, 26(1), 45-59.
- Etzioni, A. (2012). How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?. Routledge.
- Ganor, B. (2002). Defining terrorism: Is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter?. Police Practice and Research, 3(4), 287-304.
- Goodrich, J. N. (2002). September 11, 2001 attack on America: a record of the immediate impacts and reactions in the USA travel and tourism industry. Tourism Management, 23(6), 573-580.
- Hoffman, B. (1986). Defining Terrorism. Social Science Record, 24(1), 6-7.
- Young, R. (2006). Defining Terrorism: The Evolution of Terrorism as a Legal Concept in International Law and Its Influence on Definitions in Domestic Legislation. BC Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 29, 23.