Defining Terrorism: Fueling Fear, Victimizing Society

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By the definition that terror is or inspires a state of intense fear, a bombing in a public place is an act of terror. That much is hard to argue with. What happened in Boston the week of April 17 were acts of terror.

So the question is: Does committing an act of terror make someone a terrorist?

“Terrorism” has a more political association than its root. Associated Press-default Merriam Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Other dictionaries link coercion with political motivation and violence.

As the Associated Press blogged on April 18, “The word ‘terrorism’ exists at an ambiguous crossroads in America.”

But I don’t think it warrants ambiguity at all. I think in a lot of cases, it’s pretty straightforward.

Terrorism has come to mean more than simply scaring people. We often associate the word ‘terrorism’ with certain images. For me, it’s the plane crashing into the twin towers, the people jumping to their deaths, the genocide in Rwanda, and suicide bombers; the stereotypes, probably. But, we shouldn’t let stereotypes limit our understanding of what terrorism really is.

In a report titled “Terrorism 2002-2005,” the FBI wrote that there is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism.

The Code of Federal Regulations, referenced in the report, defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

While labeling someone as a terrorist may cause people to make assumptions based on stereotypes, I don’t think that is a reason to avoid telling it like it is. I think it is a good excuse to discuss the meaning of a word and to confront those stereotypes.

Instead of letting stereotypes control how we think, we need our thoughts to conquer stereotypes. Most stereotypes have a foundation in reality. We associate terrorism with groups such as Al-Qaeda because it is one of the largest known terrorist organizations, but they rarely accurately represent what they’re about.

Terrorism does not subscribe to a singular race, religion, method or agenda. It is neither inherently foreign nor domestic. All terrorists have exactly one thing in common: The goal of causing fear.

My belief is that yes, committing an act of intentional terror absolutely makes someone a terrorist.

President Barack Obama addressed the word “terrorism” in an April 16 press briefing:

“[The Boston Marathon bombing] was a heinous and cowardly act. And given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism. Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror. What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual.”

The FBI confronted domestic terrorism and the idea that terrorists do not fit the same profile or act in the same ways in a 2009 post, “Domestic Terrorism In the Post-9/11 Era.”

“One particularly insidious concern that touches all forms of domestic extremism is the lone offender — a single individual driven to hateful attacks based on a particular set of beliefs without a larger group’s knowledge or support,” the FBI wrote.

Who did it, why, how — that doesn’t affect an act’s definition as one of terror.

What affects an act’s definition as one of terror is its intent to instill fear in people, especially through violence. This is where it gets a bit trickier: aren’t most acts of violence in some way related to fear?

If terrorism is an act usually of violence intended to create fear, where does one draw the line between terrorism and other violent crimes? For example, school shootings are recognized as being horrific acts, but the word “terrorism” is not thrown around so much with regards to gun violence.

I think the burden of proof in labeling terrorism should have some grounding in whom the act affects, who the victim is. In acts of terrorism, while the number of casualties may vary from zero to thousands, society is the victim.

If an act creates widespread fear — if it doesn’t really matter to the terrorist who feels the fear as long as people do — to me that reflects terrorism. Terrorism is largely about intimidation.

I think it would be insensitive to qualify terrorism by how many people it affects, but I think we need to consider the nature of the act as well as its societal context. Terrorism is not simple assault. If society as a whole recognizes the fear, feels it, and changes its routine, that’s a sign of terrorism.

How society defines terrorism is just as important as what the dictionary decides, because public opinion is a powerful force. It is good to be careful of which words we choose, to appreciate the weight of them, and to use heavy words such as “terrorism” and “terrorist” fully knowing what they mean and fully meaning what we say.