01 June 2014

Terrorism (n.)

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about terrorism.

The word “terrorism” is notoriously difficult to define. How is it different from crime, and war? How can we use it to mean something other than “things we think are very bad”?

Any useful definition of terrorism should reference terror. And the -ism suggests that it must be a system, with a philosophy.

So I submit that a useful definition of terrorism is:

  • An act of violence ...
  • ... with a political purpose ...
  • ... which pursues its aim through its psychological rather than material effects.

Thus, as an example, the 9/11 attacks are terrorism in a way that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not. Pearl Harbor was an attempt to affect geopolitics by destroying American ships that could be used to disrupt Japanese military ambitions in Asia. 9/11, spectacular as it was, did not meaningfully affect American capacity for action — it was intended to change American thinking and motivations.

This makes terrorism a distinctively modern phenomenon, because it depends upon news media repeating the story of terrorist acts for them to be effective.

1 comment:

Doug Muder said...

In the national conversation, "terrorism" has become one of a number of words whose definition is irrelevant. ("Freedom" and "socialism" are two more.) The words are like gang colors; their usage shows which tribe someone identifies with.