The Word Terrorism & Its Diminishing Returns: Towards a Rational, Useful Definition & Application

For the crime of terrorism to have weight, we must move globally towards a more specific definition that goes beyond the very subjective “violence that we strongly dislike.”  Likewise, counterterrorism must adopt a similarly more discerning approach in order to be effective.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse March 29, 2016 

By Brian E.Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) March 29th, 2016

REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

AMMAN — Terrorism is one of these words behind which the intended use most often carries a hope that those hearing or reading it will instinctively shudder and recoil.  Like all such charged words—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, genocide—the gravity attached to them has an inverse correlation with higher frequency, more careless usage; such words retain their power and effectiveness if and when they are specifically applied selectively to instances that match a relatively clear definition and/or scope of activity; overuse cheapens and diminishes their power.  That is not to say that such terms do not sometimes deserve reconsideration, reappraisal; sometimes it is necessary to update and expand our understandings of such delicate terms.  At the same time, a vocal minority that simply wants to apply the labels because they just really don’t like something or someone—calling drones strikes terrorism and the equivalent of ISIS attacks, calling almost all Donald Trump supporters racists, calling almost all Republicans sexist, calling all critics of Israeli government policy anti-Semitic, calling Israeli actions towards Palestinians genocide—must be called out for what they are: partisans trying to hijack one awful thing to make something else they don’t like be condemned at a higher level.  Thus, when dealing with these terms, it is important that the conversation around them attempts to forge a degree of clarity.  If such efforts are not undertaken or fail, it is harmful to the ability to unite and fight actions that clearly fall under the appropriate use of these terms, and terrorism is no exception.  As the late Christopher Hitchens noted in 2002, “If any of the terms in our new lexicon has undergone a process of diminishing returns, it is the word “terrorism.””

What’s in a Name?

Violence is part of humanity, even from our earliest days; it was in nature and part of primates’ existence before they even evolved into humans; therefore, the violence of humanity predates humanity.  One thing that is certain about human-on-human violence is that the parties on the receiving end will always protest, and quite often, it is normal for the aggrieved parties to cry “terrorism” when they receive such violence.  Even if the aggrieved party is justly angry and justly thinks the violence in unjustly meted out, the label terrorism may not be appropriate.  Every person has the right to defend him or herself and every government has the right to defend its people and territory and to use violence to both stop active aggression and prevent aggression where there is a clear and present danger, even to the point of striking outside its borders.  A U.S. drone that kills either 1.) a group of active militants and several bystanding civilians or 2.) kills civilians by honestly mistaking them for militants cannot be equated with a group of militants that deliberately target and kill civilians as an end target.  At the same time, if locals use guerilla tactics against U.S. military forces stationed abroad in, say, Iraq, simply giving them the same label as militants who are killing civilians in markets or houses of worship is also inaccurate.  Labeling all of these perpetrators terrorists and acts terrorism is not only inaccurate, but counterproductive to the point of making the term meaningless, subject to the whims and partisan beliefs of whomever wants to appropriate the term to denigrate, rightfully or wrongfully, anyone with whom he or she disagrees.  To go back to Hitchens, “we need a more exhaustive and exclusive and discriminating definition of it, or recognition of it.”  For him:

“It’s glib and evasive to say that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” because the “freedom fighters” are usually quite willing to kill their “own” civilians as well. But then, so are states… All parties to all wars will at some time employ terrorizing methods. But then everybody except a pacifist would be a potential supporter of terrorism. And if everything is terror, then nothing is—which would mean we had lost an important word of condemnation.” 

For most people, there is “a simpler – and perhaps more honest – definition: terrorism is violence committed by those we disapprove of,” to quote Brian Whitaker in a Guardian piece.

All Terrorists & All Violence Are Not Created Equal

Charles Tilly/Sociological Theory

Hitchens, a lifelong socialist with a soft spot for revolutionaries and rebels—from Iraqi Kurds to Leon Trotsky—would never equate the IRA or Hamas with ISIS or al-Qaeda.  For him the test is the realistically possible and rationality: do these militants ask for something that a rational person could live with and willingly accept—an independent state, an end to military occupation, an end to institutionalized discrimination—or do they seek that which a rational person could not willingly accept: mass oppression, mass murder, forced religious conversion, to go centuries back in time? In Hitchens’ mind, true “Terrorism, then, is the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint;” he therefore writes: “Enfolded in any definition of “terrorism,” it seems to me, there should be a clear finding of fundamental irrationality.”  For Hitchens, “What this means in practice is the corollary impossibility of any compromise with” groups that practice terrorism in this purer sense.

The distinction Hitchens is making is that the label both of people as terrorists and actions as terrorism is more aptly reserved both for people who, and actions that, seek to impose a system of terror, rather than be applied to those who simply employ certain violent tactics for understandable, rational, and even laudable goals.  In other words, whether one is fighting for liberation and freedom as an end or for an end of imposing a murderous regime that butchers its own people and destroys freedom matters far more than the means employed in such fights (though they matter too).  For Hitchens, often those terrorist groups concerned with more noble ends are far more discriminate and measured in their means than those groups for whom brutality is the ultimate temporal end, and while in any conflict, destruction is a necessary evil of means, its scale and especially whether the destruction of lives and freedom is the end itself in a temporal sense are what matters most.

In a video discussion of WWII, Hitchens, along with Victor Davis Hanson, noted that while both the Axis and the Allies engaged in deliberate terror air bombings of civilian populations, and that such actions are hardly simply easily summed up as excusable under the circumstances, what Western Allied powers did with enemy civilian populations under their control—took care of them and spread stable, democratic government—compared to what Axis powers did to enemy civilian population under their control—systematic murder and enslavement and the propagation of totalitarian systems—is the primary distinction which by far matters the most even if does not come close to fully absolving the West for its conduct in terror bombings such as Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.  War brings out excess and the worst in humanity by its very nature, but even if both sides commit similar and comparable excesses at times, scale and what ends inspired those excesses to be committed in the first place are not things that can be forgotten and certainly expose any argument attempting to equate the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes with the U.S. and UK governments.

There is a limit for Hitchens to those whom we can define as rational, as “some definitions cannot be stretched beyond a certain point, and the death wish of the theocratic totalitarians, for themselves and others, is too impressive to overlook. One has to say sternly: If you wish martyrdom, we are here to help—within reason.”

Hitchens makes a passionate case for primarily using the terms terrorist and terrorism to refer not merely to tactics but end goals, and his argument is not without its strong points.  But for now and for some time policymakers and international affairs experts have loosely agreed on a broader definition (if not all its specifics) that is still both useful and far less narrow than less useful definitions.

Mainstream Views on What Is Terrorism

Joao Silva/The New York Times

Contrary to the more mainstream understanding of terrorism today, the ancient Greeks actually conceived of terrorism as a form of government (terrorcracy or tromokratos), much like democracy, monarchy, aristocracy, and so forth, in which terror was the main way the state functioned and kept law and order.  The word “terrorism” first really appears in 1795 in French (“terrorisme”) to describe Jacobin rule of France during the French Revolution, so its original use was describing government rule through terror.  It is only in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century when “terrorist” as a term is used to describe attacks on the government by the UK and Russia, respectively.  Thus, Hitchens’ approach is interesting in that his preference is for the term to be applied to non-state groups that seek to embody terror and make it an end in the way of the Jacobin regime. 

Like Hitchens, who saw a major aspect of terrorism as being an absence of reason, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman also discusses a useful definition of terrorism that involves defining what it is not.  Where Hitchens pushes a definition that involves the absence of reason, Hoffman tries to define terrorism by going through the types of violence that it is not and showing that terrorism fills that gap.  For Hoffman, this leaves us approaching a definition that is “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” One Israeli definition is basically the same, but narrows the terrorists’ targets to “civilian targets.”  Similarly, even as the term remains challenging to define, consensus within many varying international legal definitions of terrorism involve “common core elements” that at least include violence against civilians as part of a campaign to intimidate or coerce populations and/or governments, an understanding that most major mainstream analyses seem to have confirmed, even if there is significant disagreement over additional acts as to how they are—or are not—terrorism where and when government and/or military targets can be included.

Counterterrorism Must Necessarily Be Complex & Nuanced

Additionally, while few would disagree that terrorism is a tactic that states are capable of utilizing directly (“state terrorism”) either on their own people or on others, terrorism, when used as a word by itself, generally refers to non-state actors, though state sponsorship is not ruled out.  That is not to say the “state terrorism” is a better phenomenon, more legitimate or respectable, than non-state terrorism, and there is an interesting philosophical debate as to how the word terrorism should be used and to what, in its purest sense, it should refer to, but that is not the focus of the policy maker; for policymakers and the elected officials we choose, “state terrorism,” as with all actions coming directly from state structures, can often be dealt with fairly conventionally on a macro-level through the interstate international relations system.  Those carrying out those acts of terrorism, except, generally, at the lowest level, are generally protected by a state or states; to deal with them, states must be dealt with.  State-sponsored terrorism requires a more hybrid response, as a state can be pressured to reduce or stop its support for such terrorism through traditional means, but to whatever the degree the terrorist group receiving sponsorship is an independent actor it will likely have to be dealt with using more traditional counterterrorism means, which is the type of response that governs non-state terrorist acts.  Compared to non-state terrorism, state-terrorism is relatively easy to manage: a single state government, even if not wholly united, is far easier to deal with than a non-state actor because the points of possible engagement and leverage are limited and generally well-understood.  Negotiating and interacting with terrorist groups that are not part of a state structure is far more challenging precisely because such groups are not constrained by the rules of the international state system; if a faction of a state government breaks off and does not honor an international agreement, that state’s government can still be held responsible, and it can even be supported to give it the ability to reign in its recalcitrant faction.  But non-state, independent terrorist groups, whose organizations are often opaque, diffuse, and decentralized, where there is no steady or reliable point of contact or central authority and where there can sometimes be little or no desire for negotiation on the side of the terrorist organization (especially over long-term conflict resolution as opposed to, say, a cease fire or prisoner exchange), require a very different set of nontraditional approaches and means for the policymaker to deal with them; this evolving, non-traditional set of tools is what is most is most often understood to fall under the term “counterterrorism,” which itself can have much overlap with the toolbox of “counterinsurgency (COIN),” as terrorism as a tactic can be used as part of war or when there is no war, falling under the watchful eyes of both civilian and military sentinels, sometimes at different times and/or under different jurisdictions, other times simultaneously.  Not every militant attack in time of war, rebellion, or insurgency is necessarily considered terrorism though some are, depending on the definition, but generally every militant attack that is not of a traditional criminal nature and that is outside of a war/rebellion/insurgency setting is considered terrorism.

Such distinctions may seem moot, but they are from it, as are the distinctions Hitchens makes between terrorists that are rational (those who can be accommodated by reasonable and just means) and those who are irrational (those for whom there is no reasonable or just accommodation possible).  Smart, effective counterterrorism approaches will make such distinctions a core driver and a core base of such policy.  Such approaches were exactly how Gens. Petraeus and Chiarelli went after the problem of violence in Iraq, and in a short period of time, they had brought groups that had been using terrorism against U.S. forces and the Iraqi government over to fighting on behalf of U.S. forces and the Iraqi government against other, more extreme terrorists like al-Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS’s precursor), and Iraq was soon on the path to dramatically decreased levels of violence, levels that were the lowest since the war began.  The recent rise of ISIS is hardly an indictment on this strategy, as, in the end, violence in Iraq only rose in 2013 in response to the terrible sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and spillover from the Syrian Civil War, over a year after the last U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq late in 2011.  If anything, these events show how closely related the incidence of terrorism is to oppression, politics, and policy, and how variable it is in relation to changes in all of these.

Republicans/Conservatives Often Fail to Grasp Counterterrorism Basics

But too many conservatives and Republicans don’t even seem to acknowledge such realities.  In fact, for a problem that requires a decidedly nuanced approach, their prescriptions tend to lack nuance altogether.

To be fair, a good number of leading Republicans are careful to acknowledge that Islam as a whole is not the problem, and that ISIS does not reflect Islamic values in a generally, mass-practiced sense, that the West is not in a titanic civilizational struggle with the Islamic world: Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Lindsey Graham, and a number of others. 

But many—far too many—do not, including Trump and Ted Cruz, two of the last three remaining candidates for the Republican nomination; Dr. Ben Carson, the last of the candidates to drop out before Marco Rubio, also fell into this trap.  And they and those who think like them are the ascending, dominant voices in the Republican Party today.  Too many Republicans and conservatives want to lump all terrorists into the irrational, terror-as-an-end categorization; the only solution is eradication and marginalization.  When Republicans talks about terrorism, they never shy away from linking it with Islam (and the vast majority of Republicans are in favor of at least temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the U.S., à la Trump); they prefer to talk about a broad, civilizational clash à la Samuel Huntington; for them, it is a war of America standing up for Western, Judeo-Christian values against a foe that represents Eastern, Islamic values that are the antithesis of everything for which the U.S. stands.  These people tend to inflate the conflict, describe it in grandiose terms, and push for extreme, counterproductive policies.  In this vein, Republicans tend to ascribe blind hatred of the West, freedom, and Christianity as the main motives of terrorists.  You almost never hear them talk about imperialism, colonialism, mass poverty, a lack of dignity and opportunity, and the oppression of U.S.-backed regimes as root causes and motivators for terrorism even though they clearly often are.  They tend to dismiss the reality that as awful as terrorists generally are, they also often have very legitimate grievances that need to be addressed; rather, for many Republicans, all terrorists are the same purely evil people with purely evil motives that must be utterly shunned and destroyed.

This mindset in part explains why they are so against diplomacy with Iran, the main sponsor of increasingly-less-terroristic Hezbollah, and so for confrontation and non-engagement.  As I have taken time to point out before, such approaches tend to bolster both the stature and number of extremists, including both extremist politicians and extremist violent groups, including terrorists.  Just recently, moderates in Iran trounced hard-line conservatives in elections mere months after the West’s nuclear deal with Iran.  Predictably, Republicans did not alter their illogical, near-universal, near-total opposition to the deal, even as the deal is clearly showing tangible, positive results on a significant scale. 

The idea of one policy for both ISIS and Hamas, and for all terrorist groups—failing to use the political carrot to moderate the behavior of more rationally-disposed terrorists like the latter in favor of pushing for an all-out confrontation is a policy that will fail to defuse conflict when there are serious chances to do so and will, instead, inflate it, causing more death and destruction in both the short and long-term and making long-term settlement or resolution of the relevant conflicts far more unlikely—is not an idea that advances the interests of the U.S. or makes it safer.  The one-size-fits-all approach that Republicans generally favor flies in the face of decades of conflict studies analyses and research, and in the face of history itself

Even recent history reinforces these truths: the importance of the example of the IRA/Sinn Féin in Ireland and its long, violent struggle with the British government cannot be overstated (including the example of conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s failed hard-line policies in Northern Ireland), even as it is clear groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are hardly carbon copies.  Still, both Hamas and Hezbollah, like the IRA/Sinn Féin before them, have seen a dramatic moderation of their terrorist activities since their very bloody inceptions.  Successful policy over time will be one that makes distinctions and harnesses and encourages these moderating trends, rather than pushes them in the opposite direction and paints with a broad brush, as both the recent Israeli government missteps and missed opportunities leading to the summer 2014 Gaza conflict and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s misleading attempts to equate Hamas and ISIS illustrate.  Part of the same conflict, Fatah/the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) operated very much as a terrorist organization in past; since the early 1990s, and most especially after the death of Arafat, the terror role has diminished—now arguably ceased—to the degree that now it is far more common for Fatah/the PLO to be accused of inciting terror, of being complicit with terror, or of not preventing terror rather than committing terror, even by Israel, its archfoe.  As messy as these conflicts have been and often still are, the trends with these particular groups are undeniably reassuring and moving in the direction of less violence compared to recent decades.

In short, a successful counterterrorism strategy will make important distinctions between terrorist groups of different types, rather than lump them all together, allowing for the possibility of long-term negotiation and settlement with some terrorists even as others prove unwilling to consider diplomacy; if anything, there is even the possibility of causing divides within terrorist organizations between those who want to pursue engagement and those who prefer conflict, internal division that would almost always be beneficial to the opponents of such terrorist groups.

A Discerning Definition of Terrorism Helps Us All

In the end, terrorism will be difficult to define with an extremely high degree of specificity, and that task may even be, and is likely, impossible.  However, a vague yet still useful and usable definition beyond people labeling whatever violence they don’t like as terrorism and its perpetrators as terrorists is quite possible by looking at what clearly is not terrorism and what clearly is terrorism, even if there will undoubtedly be some gray areas.  Terror is undeniably part of terrorism, but any good military will try to scare its opponents into submission, either by the ferocity of its attacks or by the overwhelming relative power of its military might.  Since we have a lexicon which describes both acceptable and unacceptable military action under international law, and since “war crimes” and “war criminal” carry stigmas comparable to the labels “terrorist” and “terrorism,” it is both unhelpful and unproductive to try to blur this distinction. 

This goes for multiple sides in this discussion: Palestinians targeting Israel military targets with violence on their own legally recognized territory are more properly thought of as rebels and insurgents than terrorists, and labeling excessive Israeli military actions against Palestinians as terrorism serves no purpose when war crime vocabulary is already clear and well-defined.  The attempts by Israelis to enlarge the definition of terrorism to cover any and all violence directed at Israeli targets, whether civilian or military, is no more accurate or helpful than Palestinians trying to label all Israeli military activity, even when justified, as either war crimes or terrorism.  Such use of such terms only encourages eye rolls and a boy-who-cried-wolf-likelihood to ignore future accusations using these terms.  We could say the same for situations with American occupation forces currently in Afghanistan and formerly in Iraq, and to the U.S. government’s credit, it has increasingly become more circumspect in applying the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist,” recognizing that some local fighters are actually more aptly called insurgents.  Middle-Eastern locals and governments who are often understandably unhappy with U.S. drone policy, likewise, should rethink their application of the term “terrorism” to U.S. drone strikes, as the main use of them is to kill specific suspected militants that have either carried out or assisted or are preparing to carry out or assist violent attacks against civilians and/or U.S. or allies troops.  Civilians are not the intended targets of drone strikes even if they are killed, and the main purpose of drone strikes is not to intimidate the general population or governments of these locations where the strikes occur.  Errant strikes that kill mostly or only civilians are, of course, to be deplored, and more care needs to be taken to avoid such mistakes, but they are in no way moral equivalents to suicide bombers killing civilians for the sake of killing civilians in mosques and markets, and, as in other cases, simply throwing the words terrorism and terrorist back at the U.S. government because the victims are understandably unhappy with the results is not a blueprint for a useful definition of such terms but is very much a blueprint for a meaningless, subjective term to be used to describe any type of violence, justified or unjustified, of which one party or another does not approve. 

Intentional killing of civilians in and of itself and the desire for such intentional killing to force a change in policy/politics through its intimidating and terrorizing effects is a terrible thing; the ability to loudly and clearly label such acts terrorism enhances the ability to fight these acts and further stigmatize those who carry them out and their supporters; unproductively broadening the scope of these terms cheapens their use and the ability to single out such acts.  If every airstrike, drone strike, and militant attack on government and military installations is labelled terrorism, their perpetrators terrorists, then pretty much all political violence, even including just war and self-defense, can be labeled terrorism and the social, legal, political, and security tools needed to reign in the most heinous types of violence that target those most defenseless of all—non-combatant civilians—are weakened, leaving those most vulnerable of all people with even fewer defenses than before. 

It is in trying to be more reserved and circumspect with labeling certain things terrorism that we can empower those who fight against such violence and better protect the civilian populations that nearly always bear the brunt of it.  That is not to diminish or excuse war crimes and improper use of force by state militaries, Western or otherwise, but such misdeeds are better labeled using more traditional means, in part because more well-established, traditional tools of state-to-state interaction, international organizations, and international law already exist to deal with such excesses.  Casually labeling war crimes terrorism and war-criminals terrorists, in addition, can in turn have the effect of also diminishing the power of and seriousness of the war-crimes and terrorists labels. 

In the end, a more careful definition and more careful approach to terrorism will save more lives and weaken terrorists further than more careless, less nuanced approaches, which may actually empower terrorists and make us less secure.  In an age of hypersensitivity that is further amplified by global social media, language carries an additional weight when dealing with such weighty subjects.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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