SO 594 – Given the difficulties associated with defining terrorism, should an alternative concept be formulated?
A common, and most of the time useful, thing to do when we want to know the meaning of a word is to look it up in a dictionary. This is what I did when I started to think about the definition of terrorism. 'The systematic and organized use of violence and intimidation to force a government, community, etc, to act in a certain way or accept certain demands' (Harrap's Chambers, 2001, p.1257), my dictionary says. I found it quite blurry, but then, terrorism is certainly a broad concept that encompasses many types of action. However, if everybody uses this word, be it in the media, in everyday conversations, in books and films, in TV programmes and video games, someone, somewhere, must know what it truly means. But after doing some research, I realised it was far from being that simple. The definition of terrorism, although it exists in a dictionary in a rather broad acceptation, is widely contested and discussed. Both academics and official authorities seem to have differing views on what terrorism means, and consequently on how it should be tackled. On the other hand, to say that terrorism has been studied a lot in the last decades is an understatement – since 9/11, more than 8,000 books about terrorism were written, in English only (Furedi, 2007, p.xix). It really seems that everybody talks about it, but nobody bothers or manages to define the concept precisely. I finally got to this rather puzzling question: is there an actual definition for terrorism? Does it matter at all, i.e. do we need to have a definition for it? I am firstly going to examine the problem of defining terrorism, and I will therefore suggest some alternatives to the 'traditional' definition process.
The debate about the definition of terrorism has been going on for more than thirty years now (Tuman, 2003, p.2), and it might even have got worse in the last decade, with the emergence of a so-called 'new era', or a 'new terrorism', which appear as new concepts to be defined. We can start by tracing back the construction of the concept, to try to grasp what it actually encompasses. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin terrere, to tremble, and the French suffix –isme, which gives a sense of practicing an action. Strictly speaking, it then means 'to practice or cause the trembling' (Tuman, p.2). Terrorism, in a broader sense, has always existed. References to it can be found as early as the Roman Empire. However, the modern use of the word is more recent. It originates in the French Revolution, at the end of the eighteenth century, with the 'règne de la terreur', the reign of terror (Napoleoni, 2004, p.xvii). Whittaker makes a quick account of the most recent evolutions of the use of the concept (which does not give any definition of it). After the Second World War, the term acquired a 'revolutionary connotation', quite similar to the current one, in the context of nationalist quests and fights for independence. In the late 1960s, terrorism started to include nationalists and separatists groups who were not part of a colonial framework. After this, the concept became even broader, and was extended to state-sponsored terrorism in the 1980s. The mere fact that this word includes more and more elements and means of action makes the definition process harder and harder (Whittaker, 2003, pp.6-7). This is partly the reason why no author or authority has managed to design a definition that the whole world would agree on, and Walter Laqueur (1977, p.5) – a great specialist of the issue – even thinks there is no definition of it. Before analysing the problems of the definition process, I will just make a quick review of the different types of conflicting definitions, even if it is impossible to make a comprehensive list of the existing descriptions of terrorism. Although many of the definitions do have some elements in common, they insist on different features. For example, the UK definition, 'the use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, ideological cause, of action which involves serious violence against any person or property' (Whittaker, 2003, p.3), insists mostly on the violent feature of terrorism. The US State Department official definition is more complete: 'The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country' (Chechnya Weekly, 2003). It does not include state terrorism, and insists on political motives. Brian Jenkins (in Whittaker, 2003, p.3) does not see the target of terrorism as important: 'the use or threatened use of force designed to bring about political change'. Many more could be cited, be they slightly or significantly different from these, but looking at them already tells us one important thing about the problem: the definition of terrorism depends on the perspective adopted by the person or institution who formulates it. Thus, 'institutional definitions stress illegality of coercion and offences' (Whittaker, 2004, p.2), whereas a definition developed by a sociologist may insist more on the political goals, and a psychological definition could underline the personal profile of terrorists (yet to be defined though...), and so on. Therefore, the academic who defines terrorism according to his or her discipline might not agree with another academic. We must remember, however, that terrorism is not an abstract, dusty concept that rests quietly on a library shelf; it is a passionate, scary reality. People who are the victims of it define what terrorism is, even if only through a feeling or a physical pain. People who are called terrorists define what they do, even if not as terrorism, as shown in Paradise Now (Abu-Assad, 2005), which retraces the history of two young suicide bombers in Israel, and shows how they value their commitment, the pride they take in it, the doubt they experience, and the hope they have for Paradise. Government officials define what they are fighting against, even if in an ideologically-biased way. In short, terrorism is a label (Whittaker, 2003, p.11) given by some people to other people. And just because of this, it cannot reach a consensual definition, even more so as it involves political views and values. Indeed, 'by identifying a problem, labels may also indicate a preferred solution' (Whittaker, 2003, p.11), and most of the time they indicate a value judgement. Terrorism has, for most users of the word, a very negative connotation; it is often automatically considered as unacceptable. A word that is so value-loaded, with such a 'normative dimension' (Furedi, 2007, p.xxviii), cannot be defined objectively. Cooper even goes further in this analysis, by stating there is a deep antinomy within the concept itself, which prevents any good definition to be formulated. He actually explains that I never act as a terrorist, you only may do so (Cooper, in Martin, 2003, p.57). This statement underlines the labelling aspect of our concept; it is always given to other people and cannot apply to the speaker, whereas 'terrorism', with a working definition, 'should be defined solely by the nature and quality of what is done' (ibid). With a working definition, the word 'terrorism' could be applied to what it refers to by anyone, no matter what ideological views or political causes they defend or reject. This is why attempts have been made to define terrorism with respects of the law: law rules are meant to be objective. If we have a precise legal definition of terrorism, then governments and counter terrorism agencies can at least fight it on legal grounds. Unfortunately, the discussion that tried to make terrorism fit into juridical categories seems to have led to a deadlock too. N. Feldman tries to decide whether terrorism usually is an act of war or a crime. He established four criteria that help us distinguish between the two sides of this legal framework. First, the 'provenance criterion' – if the perpetrator falls into a jurisdiction, i.e. within the state, then it is a crime; if the culprit is an external power, then it is war. According to this criterion, terrorism seems to be a crime. From the point of view of 'the intentionality criterion', terrorism is an act of war, because it represents a challenge to the legitimacy of a state to do something (whereas a crime usually aims at secretly reaching a prohibited goal). The third issue, the 'scale criterion', that states that war is usually waged on a larger scale than crime, cannot categorize terrorism, since it can take place at various scales – from sub national and local, to global. Finally, the 'identity criterion', identifies war actors as states; whereas states cannot be prosecuted for a crime. Here again, the legal definition is not particularly useful : terrorists can act with or without the support of a state ; states may even be considered as terrorists (Feldman, in Martin, 2003, pp. 73, 76-7), by G. Bush's appellation of 'the axis of evil' and 'the rogue states' for example. This classification tells us that, unfortunately, terrorism cannot be defined precisely on legal grounds either. Another definitional attempt was made by various scholars: they tried to define terrorism negatively. By 'negatively', I mean that they aimed at delimiting the borders of the concept by saying what terrorism is not. For most of them, terrorism is distinct from guerrilla warfare. Although the two tactics may sometimes share the same goals, guerrilla usually involves more people than terrorism, who act on a more military-based organisation. Guerrilla also implies the control or the attempt to control definite territories, which is not the case with terrorism. Another concept which terrorism is often differentiated from is 'ordinary crime' (in a broad, non-legal meaning). Crime aims at achieving personal goals, whereas terrorism has the ambition to change the system, it serves a cause (Whittaker, 2003, p.8-9). A 'terrorist is fundamentally altruist' (Hoffman, 2006, p.36-37). But saying what terrorism is not still leaves many options as to what terrorism is. Hoffman's strategy to make 'distinction as a path to definition' (p.35) does not really work either.
All these specialist attempts to define terrorism therefore found themselves cornered in the definition trap. Some of the authors who work on terrorism sidestep this major hurdle simply by using a broad, commonsense definition. Thus, Bjørgo (2005, p.2) starts his book by enunciating what he considers as a consensual definition: Set of methods or strategies of combat rather than an identifiable ideology of movement, and that [...] involves premeditated use of violence against (at least primarily) non-combatants in order to achieve a psychological effect of fear on others than the immediate targets. Others, as we have seen earlier, build their own definition, which they can afterwards use as a basis for their work The advantage of this strategy is that it enables the authors to work on some specific component(s) of the concept, by emphasizing these particular elements in their own definition. However, it may be useful to remind here what the meaning and purpose of a definition are. A definition describes something objectively, in a non-biased or disputable way, and can be used by anyone, as we said earlier. With what I would call the 'personal definition strategy', this cannot be achieved. Most of the authors, however, aim at a more objective stance, and make a list of allegedly commonly agreed features of the concept. They use it as a replacement for a definition. Most of them describe terrorism as a political phenomenon, and underline that fear is essential to it (Cooper, in Martin, 2004, p.57). They also describe terrorism as a strategy that uses violence, or threatens to, that aims a '[having] psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target'. Terrorism performers are often said to exclude states (Whittaker, 2003, p.9), but this is a more and more disputable and challenged claim. This list of features varies from one author to another, so much that Laqueur (in Furedi, 2007, p.xix) wrote – in 1977 though – that the only 'general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence'. There are several objections to this method. The main flaw of the 'list strategy' is that is falls back into the definition trap. The mere fact that it is not possible to formulate one single, unanimous list shows that it does not work. It could be argued that most academics would agree on some elements of the list, which could then be reduced to these elements. I do not believe it is the case, but even if it was, we are still only talking about the academic, mostly western, world; and a great part of the 'outside world' (terrorists, for a start) would not agree with this list. This is probably the reason why Alex Schmid tried to tackle the definition problem by defining four 'arenas of discourse', with the academic world being only one of them. The three others are: 'the state arena', 'the public debate arena', and '(t)he discussion of those who oppose many of our societies' values and support or perform acts of violence and terrorism against what they consider repressive states', or the arena of people who are called terrorists by the others arenas. According to him, each arena could have its own view about terrorism, and thus reconcile the intrinsic antagonism of the concept. This actually enables differing viewpoints on the topic to be gathered and to work together under the same conceptual frame. It seems to be an interesting way out of the definition trap. However, as Weinberg et al (2004) point out, these four arenas are not, in real life, neatly separated pools of discussion. They usually are intermingled into more complex webs of conceptualisation. For example, the state, by the vocabulary it chooses, or by the meaning it gives to certain concepts, may influence the public debate, through the media. Or it could work the other way round, as we have seen when Hollywood film makers where hired by American official intelligence authorities to help them shape counter terrorism strategies after 9/11 (Furedi, 2007, p.39). So theoretically, Schmid's alternative to the classical definition process looks very interesting, but it does not really work in reality, although it could be argued that it could still function even if the arenas of discourse are intertwined and influence each other. It must also be noted that Schmid dismisses the possibility of state terrorism, which, in my opinion, weakens the analytical power of his framework. Martha Crenshaw suggests a very different approach to the ones that we have gone through so far. Without trying to give any short definition of the term, she stresses the importance of the context of terrorism to be able to explain what it is and how it works. 'Terrorism as a general phenomenon cannot adequately be explained without situating it in its particular political, social and economic contexts' (Crenshaw, 1995, ix). This is why she decided to build her book as a compilation of case studies. She values the perception of terrorism, or what she calls the 'subjective context of terrorism', as much as the reality of it (p.7) and this may be a key to understanding what terrorism is. Hence the highlight she makes on language (p.7): words do shape ideas, and ideas are reality. 'It is thus necessary to recognize that an important aspect of terrorism is its social construction' (p.8). This may be an efficient way to bypass the definition deadlock: instead of trying to define objectively what terrorism is, maybe we should proceed to case studies and examine the social, cultural and historical background of each potentially terrorist situation. This may not result in an objective, working definition, but at least it produces 'a useful analytical term', that can be used to assess very different situations, 'rather than a polemical tool' (p.7).
To sum up, we could say that, despite the obvious difficulty to define terrorism, many authors still attempt to do so, to be able to work around the concept and its implications. Various attempts to design a definition have failed – academic, official, legal, negative, mostly because of the moral judgment of using the word 'terrorism implies'. Crenshaw suggests an alternative concept to the definitional approach, which is a more analytical, case by case strategy. It seems to be the only way out of the definition trap, because terrorism is too complex a concept. Connolly and Gallie (in Weinberg et al., 2004, p.778)might be right then, when they state that some concepts are just not definable, by nature. We cannot get to a definition of terrorism, so the analytical strategy seems to be the only possible way forward.
• 'Wilfully misunderstanding terrorism?', May 2003, Chechnya Weekly, 4(16), [Jamestown Foundation website]. Available: <http://www.jamestown.org/publications_details.php?volume_id=13&issue_id=571&article_id=4176> Accessed 01 March 2008.
• Bjørgo, T. (ed.) (2005) Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward, London : Routledge
• Cooper, H.H.A. (2004) 'Terrorism : The Problem of Definition Revisited', in Martin, G. (ed.) The New Era of Terrorism : Selected Readings, London : Sage
• Crenshaw, M. (1995) Terrorism in Context, Pennsylvania State University Press
• Feldman, N. (2004), 'Choices of Law, Choices of War', in Martin, G. (ed.)The New Era of Terrorism : Selected Readings, London : Sage
• Furedi, F(2007)Invitation to Terror : The Expanding Empire of the Unknown, London :Continuum