Behind The Name: Defining Terrorism

Let me ask you a simple question, what is terrorism?

I can almost guarantee that every person reading this has a different and distinct answer to this question. It’s not an innately perplexing question, but for some reason or another it is an answer that eludes people. When you hear this question, you begin to describe what terrorism is, the facts and figures, but never a uniform definition.

To paraphrase one of my freshman year international relations professors, terrorism is a lot like pornography, you couldn't describe it but you know it when you see it (He was talking about globalization instead of terrorism, but you get the idea). When I first heard this notion, I was flabbergasted. I was born and raised in New York. I witnessed the aftermath of 9/11. To me the answer to “what is terrorism?” was always painfully clear.

It wasn’t until my first day of graduate school that this idea actually made sense to me. I went to three different lectures on that first day and heard three different and distinct answers to the same question. Its not as if the professors who gave these answers were newly minted academics, these men are some of the biggest academic minds in the entire field of counter-terrorism.  If they can’t come to a consensus on the simplest definition, what hope to the rest of us fare.

In truth, when it comes to this, the world is all over the place. Everyone has heard the phrase, “knowing is half the battle,” if this is true we are woefully outmatched. A point that had briefly been discussed by one of our authors.

The global community can’t come to a consensus on this question, let alone the national community. A quick Google search will yield a Wikipedia page titled “definitions of terrorism.” From the start you can foresee the struggle ahead, as there are multiple definitions. While Wikipedia is by no means an academic source, if you look at their citations the subject becomes almost funny, in a sad way.

Multiple government agencies in the United States, governments from around the world, academics from around the world, The United Nations, and countless consulting groups are all listed in the citations in some form or another. If in the United States the FBI, CIA, NSA, The USA PATRIOT act, The White House and Congress have different answers to this basic question, what hope is there for everyone else. There is an entire Bureau in the State Department that produced the annual country reports on terrorism, and even they are not exempt from having competing definitions.

Some may discount this as Washington bureaucrats making life difficult. However countless laws and agencies from the United Nations, the United Kingdom, France and almost every  other country under the sun, have no singular definition either. Surely bureaucracies can’t be to blame everywhere across the world, can they?

Well, I have two things to offer on this case, a possible explanation and a possible solution to the question. A possible explanation is ambiguity. Ambiguity is one of the greatest tools in the war on terror. With no clear-cut definition of terrorism, governments and their agencies are able to apply any of the many definitions and laws available in order to pursue terrorists wherever they are. The lack of a singular definition allows for separate mandates to combat terrorism depending on where you are and who you are.

I can also offer a possible answer to this question of “what is terrorism”? Actually, I can offer you someone else’s definition. Dr. Boaz Ganor, the director of the International Institute for Counter-terrorism says it quite simply. “Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians.” This definition is by no means perfect, but it could be the first step in the right direction.   

Jordan MorOpinion, TerrorismComment