A Clearer Definition of Terrorism


In a world of strong governments that are generally pretty good at talking things out – even when that talk is vain and empty – the tendency to resort to all-out warfare as a default mechanism of international relations has become a thing of the past. Cities are no longer besieged by armies, and warships are no longer torpedoed by other warships. Instead, as we are currently seeing in the western Pacific, nations engage in a carefully choreographed dance around warfare, flashing their destructive capabilities for all to see while their talking heads try to make their respective nations appear non-aggressive by pretending that the situation is normal. In this complicated web of hedging and doubletalk, nations do not resort to measures so rash as actually attacking other nations. We may “police”, “liberate”, and “keep the peace” – and those claims may or may not be accurate – but gone are the days in which you take the other nation’s land by force and raise your flag above it, claiming it for your own. But in this situation of what might be termed a multi-polar cold war, there are actual aggressors: they are the terrorists.

Terrorism has become such a problem for our age in part because we continue to have trouble understanding it. In this enlightened age of posturing and feints, terrorists do not play by the rules: they actually kill people and blow things up. We do not understand why they would want to engage in tactics that are so clearly counter-productive and doomed to fail – and they continue to confuse us because, using such base and self-destructive methods, they somehow manage to elude destruction. The frightening truth is that our understanding of terrorism is so limited that we cannot even give it a clear definition. A Hamas militant intentionally blows up a bus full of people, and we say that this is clearly terrorism. An American drone operator for some reason kills an entire family while they are tending their crops, and we say that this is not terrorism – but then others vociferously disagree. The dictionary definition does not help much: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes”. Some would say that the definition of terrorism is completely relative: many have told me that George Washington could be considered a terrorist, as they feel that there is no clear distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, revolutionary, or rebel. Such people often suggest that terrorism is not necessarily evil. Others seem to just feel that a terrorist is “anyone who violently opposes my sociopolitical sphere.” For the sake of bringing a little clarity to sociopolitical discussion (and debate), I offer a clearer definition of terrorism – a definition in which terrorism is evil and unnecessary, and in which other types of armed struggle cannot be so easily confused with it. Generally speaking, I feel that a particular attack can be classified as “terrorist” in nature if it meets at least two of these three qualifications:

1. State Disavowal

The military forces of states often engage in violence beyond the bounds of what is generally recognized as regular warfare, with soldiers killing, raping, pillaging, and razing among civilian populations. However, as terrible as these acts are, they do not necessarily constitute terrorism. This is especially true in the case of unintentional collateral violence – which will occur in almost any war. For the most part, terrorism is not something done by regular military or police forces. Rather, it is violence perpetrated either by non-state entities or by parties acting under orders from state authorities without any official recognition of their relationship with the state.

2. Civilian Targets

Regular armies tend to focus on destroying military targets. Certainly, this is not a hard rule: in the Second World War, for instance, civilian populations were intentionally targeted by all major players. However, the primary concern of soldiers in the Second World War – even for the Nazis – was always to destroy enemy military forces. Terrorism, on the other hand, is characterized by the intentional and concerted targeting of civilians. Thus, while the attack on the World Trade Center was clearly a terrorist attack, the simultaneous attack on the Pentagon might not have been if not for the people on the airliner that was used as a missile. The terrorist nature of the Ft. Hood shooting is debatable on this point. On the one hand, Ft. Hood was a military installation. On the other hand, the people shot were unarmed, and they were not at that time engaged in any operations that might have been construed as militant in nature, such as occupying a foreign country, apprehending enemies of the state, or subduing riots.

3. Unreasonable Motivation

This is perhaps the most important point, though the most abstract. Terrorism is characterized by an ultimate goal that is extremely unreasonable or even inherently violent itself. For instance, carrying out attacks against an occupying force with the goal of driving that force out of one’s territory might not be considered terrorism. However, if the goal is to punish an enemy indefinitely or to halt the violence only once the entire enemy nation has been enslaved or wiped out, this would clearly be terrorism. Thus, if a boy in a nondescript village in Afghanistan takes up arms against NATO troops because he perceives them as invaders, while he is clearly an enemy combatant, he is not exactly a terrorist. However, any entity that would seek to wipe Israel (or any other nation) off the map meets this qualification easily.


I see no evidence that George Washington was a terrorist. Neither do I see any evidence that the federal government of the United States of America is an organization that carries out terrorist activities. (Of course, if it were to do so, official disavowal would probably ensure that I would not know about it anyway.)


This definition of terrorism is not meant to suggest that other acts of violence are acceptable just because they are not technically terrorist activities. I do not mean to downplay the horror of violence, but merely to properly categorize it.