What is terrorism? 1

Terrorism is a method. 

It is not an ideology, or a movement, or a conspiracy, or a policy, or an aim.

Its users might be an organized movement that conspires to adopt the tactic; and a state might use it against its own people as a matter of policy. But terrorism itself is simply a method. A tactic.

Terrorism is not hard to define:

Terrorism is the systematic use of violence to create public fear.

As a method of intimidation it is as old as mankind and will surely continue to be used as long as our species continues to exist.

It has been used for various types of causes, such as religious (eg. the Catholic Church with its Inquisition; Protestant powers such as Calvin in Geneva, the Puritans at Salem); commercial and criminal (eg. the Mafia); and political, by rebels, and revolutionaries, and adherents of diverse ideologies.

Whether terrorism is used by a small group like the Weather Underground or the Baader-Meinhof gang; a large group like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland and England, or Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru; or a state like the Third Reich or the USSR, it is a method of instilling fear into many more people than it can directly attack so they or their rulers will do or not do what the terrorists want done or not done. That is why the attacks need to be random. Though you have done nothing personally to affront the terrorist organization doing its evil deeds in your corner of the world, you must be made to understand that their bomb could be in the bus you take to work or your child takes to school, and so could as easily kill or maim you or your child as anyone else.

The mentality behind terrorism is similar to the mentality of the racist. The users of the method target individuals indiscriminately because they “belong” to a group or class that the terrorists designate their enemy. You are a member of a political party that they oppose. You have a nationality they don’t like. You are a capitalist. You work for the “military-industrial complex”. Or you are one person in a national collective under a despotism that would keep you obedient.

Terrorism punishes the innocent. If a tyrant is killed, it is not terrorism; if his infant children are killed as “collateral damage”, it is.

Can the use of terrorism ever be justified? It is the moral question every terrorist needs to answer for himself. He alone makes the decision to do the deed. It is no excuse that he is obeying others. He – or she – is still responsible even under threat. The exception of course is when – for instance – a person is forcibly strapped into a suicide vest, deposited in a public place, and is detonated without taking any action himself. Islamic terrorists use children in this way.

An argument is sometimes put forward by persons – usually academics – who want, for various and usually disgraceful reasons, to discourage action against this or that terrorist organization, that the number of people who are hurt or killed in a specified period by terrorist action is smaller than the number killed by (eg) car accidents in the same time span. But an accident is by definition nobody’s fault. Because terrorism is a moral question, depending on people making decisions and implementing them, such comparisons are not only invalid but invidious.

What of war? Does that not harm and kill many innocents? Of course. But when war happens, all normal constraints are abandoned and the moral questions are changed. Was Churchill right to have Dresden bombed flat? Was America right to drop nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima? If more people were saved by these acts which brought war to an end than were hurt and killed by the actions themselves, were they good or were they evil?

The morality of war is open to argument. But clear acts of terrorism can be carried out within wars, and need to be unequivocally condemned. For instance, in World War Two, the Germans massacred all the inhabitants (642), men women and children, of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944, in reprisal for one of their officers being captured and held there. It was plainly a “war crime”, and plainly an act of terrorism.

What – it is sometimes asked – of random violence used against a conqueror occupying your country in war? Is that terrorism? And even if it is, is it not justified? Not an easy question to answer. The best one can do to decide the morality of (eg) blowing up a train that is bringing enemy reinforcements into your country but also bearing some of your fellow countrymen, is to ask whether the action would make most of your fellow countrymen feel more safe or more threatened. If the answer is “more safe”, it could be argued that the act was therefore justified. But much depends on what an action is, whom it kills and in what way; on the circumstances of the occupation, and on whether it is oppressive or comparatively benign. In each case, judgment is needed.

Communism and Islam are inherently terrorist ideologies.

 

Jillian Becker   March 18, 2015

(Jillian Becker was director of the London-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism 1985-1990)

  • liz

    Interesting then that Communism and Islam, both “inherently terrorist ideologies”, are now allied with each other, as were Nazism and Islam.
    In fact, they often inhabit the same people at once, such as our President.