"Terrorism" – Flawed Definitions serve only to make it Worse

In recent years, the word terrorism has run rampant in the media, in political discourse, in academia, and in coffee-shop conversations among average Canadians. There isn’t a day goes by when we don’t hear it, read it, or speak it. In fact, you’d have to be living in a backwoods log cabin – alone, with no outside communications — to get away from it.

With such widespread use in Canadian society, you’d think the meaning and significance of "terrorism" would be thoughtfully familiar to the untold millions who now consider it part of their everyday vocabulary.

But that’s far from the case: "terrorism" as used today, is riddled with dangerous semantic and ideological flaws. It needs a more contextual, solid and balanced definition before its continued rhetorical abuse causes any more havoc with our collective understanding and welfare.

For example, people easily speak of "Islamic" terrorism and "Muslim" terrorists as if these concepts were real and authoritative. Such terms slide off the tongue with little or no effort and even less thought; it’s just talk, whatever and whenever you like, with or without evidence. It no longer seems to matter, for regardless of what is said, the "T-word- will guarantee listeners and believers every time. It has gained many self-styled experts and pundits instant popularity without the inconvenience of accountability or responsibility.

Even among those willing to debate the issue at length, few really understand the topic of terrorism in sufficient depth; even fewer can come close to agreeing on how to define it.

Therefore, let me focus this discussion now by exploring what terrorism is NOT.

1. First of all, terrorism is NOT the product (or by-product) of any recognized religion. It is wholly unfair to associate any genuine religion with terrorism, for none of them teach, preach, or endorse any form of violence as a core moral or theological value.

2. Secondly, terrorism does NOT include self-defense. Imagine that armed invaders assaulted your town, kicked you out of your own home, raped the women, killed anyone and everyone in their way… All of us understand the need to defend ourselves and our loved ones against unprovoked attack.

Self-defense, however, does not justify committing injury against other innocent people.

3. Thirdly, terrorism is NOT restricted to individual agents. There are also terrorist groups who recruit, train and indoctrinate para-military guerrillas in order to achieve their ideological or territorial goals. And there are terrorist governments, which use formal armies and weapons of various degrees of destruction against innocent people.

4. Fourthly, terrorism is NOT restricted to the use of bombs and other armaments. People can be (and frequently are) harmed via other means, including political terrorism – inflicted through intentional conditions of hunger, torture, denial of medical care, economic sanctions, and systemic negative stereotyping.

5. Lastly, terrorism is NOT restricted to official non-combat zones. Acts of terrorism can and do take place in combat and/or war zones if basic humanitarian (i.e. Geneva Convention or UN) ethics respecting the treatment of civilians, soldiers, or captives are not observed.

In light of the above distinctions, therefore, we can now determine more precisely and justly what terrorism IS. A fair working summary could be offered as follows: Terrorism is the commission of an act (or acts) intentionally and knowingly meant to harm civilians and/or innocent parties (or knowing it could harm them) in a manner and to a degree that clearly negates basic concepts of international law, civil rights, and humanitarian compassion.

One academic definition that has found wide international respect is based on a linguistic survey of more than 100 descriptions produced around the world. It reads: "Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine (undercover) individual, group, or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal, or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets." (Schmid and Jongman, Political Terrorism: pub. North- Holland, Amsterdam, 1987)

On the basis of so many available definitions of terrorism, one should note also that terrorism may be carried out on different levels: a) terrorism which threatens life, security, honor, property and the like; b) cultural terrorism, which tears human identity apart and leads to societal aimlessness; and c) dis-information terrorism, which deprives human beings of their freedom to breathe in a psychologically and intellectually unpolluted atmosphere.

As mentioned earlier, there are other types of oppression that come under the broader realm of our definition, such as economic terrorism, scientific terrorism, diplomatic/political terrorism, military terrorism, media terrorism, etc.

There exists, however, a critical division among the perpetrators of terrorism, which must be taken into account: this is the separation of terrorism into official and unofficial categories.

Official terrorism – by far the most dangerous – comprises all intentionally violent or oppressive acts supported by an internationally recognized nation, country, sector, or state, whether carried out by the army of the given state, by individual governmental elements, or in the form of designated operations designed to benefit only the state or entity in power. Recent examples include: the devastating attack by Serbia on Bosnia and Herzegovina; the U.S. invasion of Iraq (reportedly resulting in the deaths of up to 1 million within five years); the American-led campaign against Afghanistan (resulting in about 6,000 civilian deaths during 2007 alone); and now Israel’s brutal targeted offensive on Gaza, where the death toll during only two weeks (at the time of writing) already surpassed 900.

Unofficial terrorism should not be underestimated either. The catastrophic events of 9/11 and 7/7 have not been traced (so far) to any predetermined and/or premeditated governmental conspiracy. Nor have they revealed any credible evidence of conscious religious motivation. As noted, an act of terrorism can be perpetrated by a government, an army, a group, or an individual, using direct or indirect means of violence. Here again, it is a grave mistake to associate such terrorist acts with any religion –” even when we hear claims of responsibility (after the fact) by those who desire the fame or notoriety of being supposed agents for religious goals. Their acts and/or claims do not speak for the true adherents of any religion.

Terrorism is terrorism, plain and simple. We can help stop it by calling it what it is and by understanding what it isn’t.