Definition of "Terrorist":
Let's Have Some Clarity
October 5, 2001
"Terrorist" is a
word used so often and so loosely that it has lost a clear meaning.
This is a proposal to lend
some clarity to the definition, and thus hopefully to the use, of the word
Currently, the term
"terrorist" is applied to the use of force most often on the basis
of whether the speaker agrees with the goal of the violence. Hence the
expression "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
Alternatively, or sometimes
even in conjunction with the foregoing, some people condemn any violence by
a non-governmental entity -- whatever the target -- as terrorism, and
approvingly label any action by a sovereign country's military forces
-- again, whatever the target -- as "military strikes" or the
In determining whether an act
is "terrorist" or not, it would be more useful to eliminate
subjective evaluations of the goals of the violence, and instead, utilize
two other factors -- the expected result of the violence, and the nature of
the actor -- to then distinguish among four different types of acts
involving the application of force:
Expected result of the
violence: Let's define a "terrorist" action as the use of
violence where one would reasonably expect harm to innocent civilians.
This is to be distinguished from a "military" action, where the
use of violence is not reasonably expected to harm innocent civilians.
Nature of the actor: A
"state" action would be one conducted by a sovereign
government. A "guerrilla" action will be one conducted by a
Four different types of
violent acts: Hence, we can have both state military actions and state
terrorist actions. Likewise, there can be both guerrilla military
actions and guerrilla terrorist actions.
Under these definitional
guidelines, if a country sends its bombers to destroy the water system or
other civilian infrastructure of another nation, this would be a state act
of terrorism, because harm to civilians would reasonably be expected to
result. On the other hand, if a country sends its bombers to attack
military airfields of its enemy, that would be a state military action.
Similarly: if a group
fighting to overthrow a government or end an occupation by a foreign power
sends a suicide bomber to blow up a civilian pizzeria, this would be a
guerrilla act of terrorism. In contrast, if such a group sends a small
boat filled with explosives to blow up a military vessel, that would be a
guerrilla military action.
While these definitional
results may stick in the craw of some, the value is that the killing of
innocents will be condemned equally no matter who does it, and for however
allegedly wonderful the ends sought.
Some may correctly point out
that even striking a military airfield may kill some civilians who happen to
be on the base, and that is true. But similarly, a guerrilla group
blowing up a military vessel may also kill some civilians who happen to be
on board. As with all definitions, a bit of common sense has to be
And again, since no
subjective evaluations of the validity of often complex socio-political
goals are involved in applying these definitions, the level at which likely
or actual harm to civilians would trigger the "terrorist" label
can be applied evenly to both governmental and non-governmental actors.
Moreover, by not allowing the
use of the term "terrorist" to be used as an
"argument-closed" condemnation of guerrilla military actions,
those discussing the situation will be forced to debate the merits or not of
the goals of the guerrillas, not hide behind an inappropriate labeling of
the guerrilla's tactics.
At the same time, guerrilla
forces committing atrocities against civilians will be appropriately labeled
"terrorists" and would not be able to deny being terrorists
because of the alleged validity of their goals.
All in all, then, these
suggested definitions would tend to force the parties involved to focus on
avoiding harm to civilians, and to deal with the real issues at stake in
their disputes -- two results I hope most people would welcome.