Editorial: Defining Terrorism

September 20th, 2006

by Matt Farrell

Does the War on Terrorism have an achievable objective, or is it an abstract conflict with a perpetual, faceless enemy? News+Views Editor Matthew Farrell looks for a definition of “terrorism” and a clearer picture of what, exactly, we’re looking to defeat.

Terrorism - The calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear.
WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

If terrorism is exclusively violence that targets civilians then why do we consider the al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole a terrorist attack? What about Hezbollah’s 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut? Was the September 11 attack on the Pentagon not a terrorist operation?

Terrorism - The systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police.
Encyclopædia BritannicaWorkspace

This seems to be a pretty comprehensive definition of terrorism, but it suggests that nearly every armed institution in history has been guilty of terrorism at one time or another. Does the war on terror really include crooked police, every authoritarian regime in the world, organized crime and neo-Nazis, as well as militant Islam? Is declaring war on every form of violent intimidation imaginable a sound foreign policy?

ter·ror·ism (tr-rzm) - The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

If terrorism is limited to “unlawful” acts of violence, does that mean lawmakers have the final say on what acts of violence are considered terrorism? Whose law do we refer to? Ours or Afghanistan’s? The UN’s or Iran’s? Israel’s or Palestine’s? The French Resistance during World War II was “unlawful.” Was that terrorism? What about the American Revolution?

Terrorism - The actual or threatened use of violence, directed by groups or individuals against noncombatants, to achieve political ends. Under U.S. law, international terrorism involves the citizens or territory of more than one country, and noncombatants include unarmed or off-duty military personnel as well as civilians. Terrorist activities include, among other violent acts, assassinations, bombings, suicide bombings, hijackings, and skyjackings.
Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia

If noncombatants can include off-duty soldiers, then was it an act of terrorism when Israeli commandos raided Beirut in 1973 and assassinated three Palestinian leaders? Would it be a terrorist operation if the U.S. bombed an al-Qaeda hideout while bin Laden was “off-duty?”


The “War on Terror” is a blank check for the Bush Administration. There’s no clear criteria to judge how well we’re doing, because there’s no clear objective. There’s no clear enemy, so Bush can do what he wants domestically and internationally to whomever he wants as long as he manages to keep it muddled up somewhere in his abstract war. Is Iraq part of the “War on Terror?” Will Iran be part of it soon?

What if instead of declaring a “War on Terror” after September 11, we declared a war on al-Qaeda or even militant Islam? At this point I think it would be clear that we’re losing. Al-Qaeda still operates freely in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and with Hussein out of the way, they’ve found a new front in Iraq. Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri are still at large. As long as we’re engaged in a “War on Terror,” however, there is no losing or winning, because there is no clear, achievable objective to measure our progress against. Do we really want to commit to a war with no conceivable end?
Matthew Farrell is a junior TV-R major, and anywhere you meet him, guaranteed, it’s going down. He can be reached at [email protected]

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