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Defining Terrorism

Virginia Held is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate School.  She is a past president of the the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division).  Her most recent book, How Terrorism is Wrong: Morality and Political Violence, offers a moral assessment of various forms of political violence, with terrorism as its focus.  She asks tough questions such as: “Why is terrorism wrong?” and “On what grounds should we judge when the use of violence is morally acceptable?”  In the excerpt below Held attempts to define terrorism as an act separate from war and crime.

Understanding how to define terrorism is notoriously difficult…Governments characteristically define terrorism as something only their opponents can commit and as something only those who seek to change polices or to attach a given political system or status quo can engage in.  The definition used by the U.S. State Department, for instance, has included the claim that it is carried out by “subnational groups or clandestine agents.”…This is obviously unsatisfactory.  …as Israeli and U.S. political scientists Neve Gordon and George López, respectively, say, “Israel’s practice of state-sanctioned torture also qualifies as…political terrorism.  It is well known that torture is not only used to extract information or to control the victim; it is also used to control the population as a whole.”…

There can also be state-sponsored terrorism when the government of one state funds and supports terrorism carried out by members of groups or states not under its control.  The United States routinely lists a number of countries (e.g., Iran and Syria) that, it claims, support terrorist groups elsewhere…

Terrorism is certainly violence… One can doubt that Al Qaeda has a political objective in the sense in which many people understand politics, but since it aims at the religious domination of the political, its violence is indeed political…Its aim to expel U.S. and European forces from the Middle East is clearly political.  War is also political violence on a larger scale, though if the most alarming plans of current terrorist groups were successful, they would often amount to war as currently understood…

Two important definitional questions have to do with whether the targeting of civilians must be part of the definition of terrorism and whether such targeting turns other political violence into terrorism.  Many of those who write about terrorism incorporate the targeting of civilians into their definitions…

There are serious problems with a definition of terrorism that sees “the deliberate killing of innocent people,” as Walzer puts it, to be its central characteristic or what distinguishes it from other kinds of political violence and war and makes it automatically morally unjustifiable in the same way that murder is.  First, consider some of the descriptive implications.  If targeting civilians must be part of terrorism, then blowing up the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and killing hundreds of marines, and blasting a hole in the U.S. destroyer Cole and killing seventeen sailors in Yemen in October 2000 would not be instances of terrorism, and yet they are routinely offered as examples of terrorism…

Even more awkward for the proposed definition that includes the killing of civilians as its defining characteristic is that we would have to make a very sharp distinction between the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, which was certainly terrorism, and the attack that same day and with entirely similar means on the Pentagon, which on this definition would not be counted as terrorism (although some civilians work at the Pentagon, it is a primarily military target.  This seems very peculiar.

If one tries with this definition to include (rather than exclude) these cases as instances of terrorism and if one thinks that, instead of those who are technically “civilians,” one simply means those who are not now shooting at one-like the Marines, when they were asleep, or the colonels at their desks in the Pentagon-and suggests that only those presently engaged in combat are legitimate targets, one will make it illegitimate for the opponents of terrorism to target terrorists when they are not actually engaged in bombings and the like.  Moreover, distinguishing when members of the armed forces are actual present threats that may be targeting (as distinct from only potential threats because they are not resting) has not been part of the distinctions worked out so far, which assert that noncombatants should not be targeted…

An even more serious problem with a proposal to tie the definition of terrorism to the targeting of civilians but to include the attack on the Pentagon among instances of terrorism (because members of the armed forces working at the Pentagon are not currently engaged in combat) is that it puts the burden of being a “legitimate tarter” on the lowest levels of the military hierarchy-the ordinary soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support personnel-and exempts those who give them their orders, send them into combat, and make them instruments of violence.

Furthermore, if attacking civilians is the defining characteristic of terrorism, a great many actions that are typically not called terrorism would have to be considered terrorist actions: the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, London, and all of those other places where civilians live and become targets, as well as where the aim to spread fear and demoralization among wider groups was surely present.  Perhaps we should just get used to calling all these “acts or terrorism.”  But perhaps we should find a definition of terrorism that does not ask us to.

What many discussions of terrorism try, of course, to do is to come up with a definition such that what they do is terrorism and and unjustified, whereas what we and our friends do is not terrorism but justified self-defense.  Building the targeting of civilians into the definitions is often used to accomplish this since “intentionally killing innocent people” seems by definition wrong and unjustified…

…In sum, then, I decline to make the targeting of civilians a defining feature of terrorism, even though terrorism very frequently targets noncombatants.  Terrorism is political violence that usually spreads fear beyond those attacked, as others recognize themselves as potential targets.  This is also true of much warfare…Terrorism’s political objectives distinguish it from ordinary crime.  Perhaps more than anything else, terrorism resembles small-scale war.  It can consists of single events, such as the Oklahma City bombings, though it is usually part of a larger campaign, whereas war is always composed of a series of violent events.  Importantly, there are many kinds of terrorism, just as there are many kinds of war.

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