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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 "terrorist."

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 like. 

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 non-governmental entity.

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 applied.

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.

This was a selection from The Daily Diatribe

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