Parsing Definitions of Terrorism

The Abbey in the Oakwood - Caspar David Friedrich

The worst instrument used against a government is Terror. But what is Terrorism?

As previously stated, this blog advocates for a straightforward definition of the instrument:

"The intentional use of violence against civilians or civilian targets in order to attain political aims" 

However there are other definitions, proposed by several scholars, that basically follow the succeeding line of thought:

"Terrorism is the use of, or the threat to use, violence against non-combatants to effect a political change"

And, finally, the EU offers us the undermentioned:

"acts which aim to intimidate populations, compel states to comply with the  perpetrators' demand and/or destabilise the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or a international organisation."

Looking at the first two statements, we will be tempted to think that they are similar; however they are not and, in sooth, one of them presents a huge problem (to be discussed below). By looking at the third statement, we immediately recognise the political fingerprint.

A Quick Parsing Exercise:

What should be understood by civilians? 

According to the Rule 5 of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL), civilians are "persons who are not members of the armed forces. The civilian population comprises all persons who are civilians."

What should be understood by armed forces? 

The Rule 4 of the IHL defines them as being "(..) all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that party for the conduct of its subordinates."

What is a non-combatant? 

It is a member of the armed forces "such as a chaplain or a surgeon, whose duties lie outside combat" (which coincides with the exception in the definition of Combatants, in Rule 3 of the IHL).

Population: the total number of people inhabiting a specific area.
Intimidate: fill with fear; to coerce or inhibit by or as if by threats; frighten or overawe.

When experts define terrorism as the use of violence (or threat to use it) against non-combatants (i.e. medical and religious personnel of the armed forces) they are, in reality, suggesting that attacks against civilians and civilian objects are not to be regarded as terrorism. Certainly, some of you will point out to the fact that dictionaries do offer as a second definition of non-combatants "civilian in wartime"; however, there is an issue with this explanation because a civilian in wartime may spontaneously take up arms to resist invading troops - before having time to form an armed group - and, thus, become a combatant (see levée en masse). This being said, the term "non-combatant" to refer to "civilian in wartime" is subjective and should not be applicable.

When politicians define terrorism as an act that fills the total number of people living in a specific area with fear (or that it coerces them by or as if by threats) they are:

  1. purging the lethal characteristic from the act. Terrorism aims at killing civilians first, in order to fill them with fear after. Fright and overawe are a consequence of the lethality of terrorism, not the cause. The first kills are a threat to carry out the next ones.
  2. equating civilians to combatants (by using the broad word "population"), when the International Humanitarian Law clearly distinguishes them.
  3. confusing the common citizen (i.e. the main target of terrorism) regarding the perceptual meaning of terrorism (is it actually killing and injuring people or does it also include the expression of the intent to commit the act?).

All of the above is a small sample of the complexity behind defining terrorism. Notwithstanding, when scholars and politicians set themselves to concoct a definition they should put aside their intellectual vanity, their political agendas, and ask themselves the following: do surviving victims of terrorism, their relatives and friends, care about how many forms of terrorism there is; do they care about the typology of the phenomenon; do they care about the protection that some believe to be vouchsafed by political ambiguity? Or do they care to know that the international community understands what they went through and, thus, to trust that they will be vindicated by means of the law (so that terrorists won't find safe havens anywhere in the world)?

"Terrorism is the intentional use of violence against civilians or civilian targets in order to attain political aims" 

There: clean, clear, concrete. All the legal basis (around the above definition) can be covered by means of addenda, can't they?

Comments

  1. Replies
    1. Hi Abelle, ma belle :D!

      Indeed, darling, indeed.

      Thank you so much for your comment, my dear :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  2. terrorism is in every way is a symptom of terror. One of the worse forms of spreading fear to general popoulations is by everytime threat: once executed i.e. transformed by an act of terror, persons aquire the threat pressure, menace and uncertainty; Its first time execution usually is physical but constantly, is a mind game, and psychic blackmailing...... but isn't this the general tools that govs use to their people (people with constant pressure, menaces, mind gaming......) ??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Gallardo :D!

      Terrorism a symptom of terror...not the practise of terror?
      I understand what you are saying about people being constantly kept under threat. That feeling alone terrorises them, you say - and the media contributes to it by repeating the same images over and over again...you are not alone in that assessment. That is why many experts, and I am told that prof Edwin Bakker (from the ICCT) principally, advocate for Public Resilience as a Counter-Terrorism measure. Basically, if the people do not show fear terrorism will lose its effect - do you agree?

      I wouldn't say that governments use the same tools as terrorists, no; however, I would say that psychological games are used by everybody...

      G, thank you ever so much for your great input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  3. To me it is just a waste of time defining terrorism because at the end of the day, it is a bunch of criminals murdering people for nothing. In their mind they say its for political reasons, but is it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous :D!

      If it is not for political reasons then it is not terrorism; it is serial killing. Wouldn't you agree?

      Thank you so much for your input; you raised an interesting question :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  4. I recognize the need to define terrorism because terrorists shouldn't have the possibility to murder people in Europe, let's say, and then flee to Brazil and live there in peace after murdering people who have little to do with their grievances. Let's face it, we vote for politicians but then they do stuff that go against our personal beliefs, our values, our political ideas etc.
    I read once a definition of terrorism that had five-seven lines; when I finished it I couldn't remember the beginning of the definition. A simpler one is urgently needed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Celia :D!

      Good point. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why there should be a universal definition of terrorism - well done.
      Another good point: we may elect politicians but then they may act contrary to what we thought they would. This may refute Bin Laden's and Al-Qaeda's argument that no civilian is innocent because they elect their politicians. But we would need more debate on this one as well. Good.

      I hear you on the five-seven line definition; it's a nightmare.

      Celia, thank you ever so much for your great input :D. Great points.

      Cheers

      Delete
  5. Yeah, I have seen a few definitions using the non-combatant term (I think Jessica Stern used it too). Americans, Brits, Israelis tend to use it to include the military when off duty to justify a firmer response to attacks. Do you know how many definitions there are in the US alone? More than 100, Max! How are they going to tell the international community 'hey, it's time for one universal def'?
    Celia made a good point though; if we don't have one and legislate properly then these terrorist SOBs can murder in one country and find protection in another that has no extradition agreement with the targeted one. Celia, you wowed me; and we all know how hard that is ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Adam :D!

      I haven't read Stern's work yet. To tell you the truth, Israelis even consider terrorism when Hamas attacks against soldiers on duty - of course, I do not agree with it because IDF soldiers are combatants 24/7 (per necessity); so perhaps an attack against IDF soldiers should be considered an act of war instead?
      True, more than 100 definitions indeed; it's crazy.

      She did, didn't she? I loved it.

      Adam, thank you so so much for your outstanding comment :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  6. "The worst instrument used against a government is Terror."

    I would reword this a bit: "The worst instrument used against a people, nation or civilization is Terror."

    The worst instrument used against a government is Accountability. That is, holding politicians and bureaucrats accountable for their own actions, not the actions of others.

    Are attacks on property ever forms of terrorism? In extreme cases, you might deprive someone of their livelihood, leaving them in a position to starve. Classically, an army that couldn't take a city would simply burn the surrounding district.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Looney :D!

      You would re-word it correctly; however, there is a problem: terrorism aims at affecting a government's policy/power through the killing of civilians. But the ultimate goal is the government not civilians (sadly, they are just a means to an end). Notwithstanding, yes, terrorism is the worst thing that could happen to people, nation or civilisation.

      LOL @"The worst instrument used against a government is Accountability." that too, my friend, that too, However that instrument is a legitimate one, whereas terror is not.

      Attacks on property are a form of terrorism when they are civilian objects. Interestingly enough, the international law is a bit ambiguous when it comes to government buildings (city hall, the official home of the PM or President, intel agencies buildings etc).
      Classically and contemporaneously: they seem to be doing the same in Syria.

      Looney, thank you ever so much for your outstanding comment :D. Loved it.

      Cheers

      Delete
  7. Conclusion: drummer Rigby's murder was not a terrorist act cause he was still a member of the armed forces, hence a combatant.
    It is incredible how journalists and politicians are quick to invoke the international law when it comes to Israel and Japan vs China but ignore that they themselves violate the international law everyday and when they make laws that go against it. Hypocrites!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Peter :D!

      Yes, you are absolutely right.
      You raise a very good question...let's ponder on it.

      Peter, thank you ever so much for your great input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  8. "Terrorism is the intentional use of violence against civilians or civilian targets in order to attain political aims"
    You have omitted religious aims,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rummy :D!

      I have not omitted religious aims because religion is not seen (by experts) as a goal; but as an element describing the type of terrorism. There are five types of terrorism: Right-wing, Left-wing/anarchist, Religiously-inspired, Single issue and Ethno-nationalist/Separatist. But their ultimate goal is to effect a political change.

      Rummy, thank you so much for your great input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  9. Lets see for how long France will be firm with the Iranians. Question though, with all this stalling moves don't you think that Iran may be getting near the zone of immunity?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Joseph :D!

      It only took them more or less a week of firmness, as a deal has been signed. That is actually a good question, Joe...given the deal signed, we have to ask ourselves what did the Iranians win besides a mere $7Bn worth of relief?

      Joseph, thank you so much for your comment :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  10. Since the international law is bluntly violated by countries, and it's fine, we need a provision to expel all terrorists descending from Muslim countries. As long as we are forced to have them here in Europe the problem will never be solved!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous :D!

      All right; but I would like to ask you how do you expel European citizens from Europe? Because not all Muslims were born in the Muslim countries.

      Anonymous, thank you ever so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  11. Well I would take the thought process a little further. Now the way it has been defined, it no way is different from the definition of War, where in a war both sides participate and there are some rules of the game to be followed and is not simply one way, but Terrorism is when one of the parties may or may not express its intent explicitly but nonetheless perpetrate an act of brutal and inhuman nature through surreptitious and clandestine means without a specific warning and the cause may be rational or irrational.

    I guess the complication to define terrorism starts at the point when everybody realizes that terrorism has by and large got painted to a particular community and when others try to mellow it down to appease them, the definitions change dramatically. But ultimately the way you define, I guess the word innocent should also be used in the definition.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kalyan :D!

      So, basically, you are saying that in defining terrorism we shouldn't base ourselves in internationally legal terms that only apply to War; pray, what you would then suggest? You may be on to something...

      "when others try to mellow it down to appease them,"

      Well said.

      The word "innocent" should also be used in the definition...all right, but what constitutes an "innocent" civilian to you? Because including that word in the explanation could be tricky and help abetors walk; but I must think about it better - thank you for bringing this one up.

      Kalyan, thank you ever so much for your great comment :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  12. My peeps, politicians will always want to play with the definition of terrorism. But Max, I am shocked at you: how come you didn't analyze the Arab League definition of terrorism? It's a joke; please do it for us to have a couple of cheap laughs, girl!
    I ask Kalyan one thing: are civilians innocent? It depends at how you look at it, and since it is subjective it shouldn't be included in a final definition of the word terrorism! But I may be wrong. Anyway, I'm off. Shabbat Shalom to the brothers!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ana :D!

      Easy, my darling...I will get to that, eventually. Meanwhile, try not to be so shocked ;).

      Ana, thank you so much for your comment :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  13. The EU definition is typical political manoeuvring. If I was a policy-maker I would choose the first one cause it's simpler and it would help create awareness among the public. You wouldn't believe how many people do not have the slightest idea of what terrorism is, how it can be prevented and how they can participate in countering it. About the international law: that is only for some and whenever the left wing sees fit, otherwise it doesn't count :-)
    Thought of the week: Iran signed a deal! What are your thoughts about it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Michael, the deal signed over the weekend sounds good so I don't get it why Bibi is saying it is a historical mistake...maybe there's something that I don't know?

      Delete
    2. Hi Michael :D!

      Oh but I would believe it.
      LOL LOL indeed, the left has some interesting takes on the IHL.
      My thoughts on the nuclear deal...The West made quite a deal (it is impressive even), Iran kept its enriching "rights" below 5% even though that is not what they wanted, and got $7Bn worth of relief...something is off; particularly when the Supreme Leader come out and said he welcomed the deal, after what he said last week - it doesn't make sense.

      Michael, thank you so much for your great input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete

Post a Comment

Dissecting Society welcomes all sorts of comments, as we are strong advocates of freedom of speech; however, we reserve the right to delete Troll Activity; libellous and offensive comments (e.g. racist and anti-Semitic) plus those with excessive foul language. This blog does not view vulgarity as being protected by the right to free speech. Cheers