The definition of terrorism has been rather fluid and considering we are supposedly at war with it, the definition should be nailed down-else what are we at war with?
Dictionary.com has a short and sweet definition: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” This is problematic. If the president says, “all options are on the table” in reference to Iran, he is a terrorist according to this definition. When Krushchev said, “We will bury you,” he was a terrorist according to this definition. That’s not quite what we mean-it is ‘normal’ for national leaders to threaten (and sometimes use) violence to coerce for political purposes.
The FBI has been publishing an annual report called “Terrorism in the United States” since the mid 1980s. Since 2001, it has dropped “in the United States” from the title and now the report is simply called “Terrorism.” They admit “There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations 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” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
Terror as a tactic is probably as old as civilization, but the political term first appeared during the French Revolution.
According to a New York Times article, “The revolutionary leader Maximilian Robespierre firmly believed that virtue was the mainspring of a popular government at peace, but that during the time of revolution must be allied with terror in order for democracy to triumph. He appealed famously to `virtue, without which terror is evil; terror, without which virtue is helpless’, and proclaimed: `Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.’ Robspierre lost his own head after 40,000 of his countrymen succumbed to the ‘virtue’ of terror.
But government terror is no longer what we mean by the term. What do we mean? Perhaps we now mean something more like revolutionary Carlo Pisacane’s “propaganda of the deed.” `The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,’ Pisacane wrote in the 1850s. `Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.’ Violence was necessary to draw attention to a cause and educate the public.
The first random bombing of civilians was carried out by French anarchist Emile Henry in 1894. Henry was outraged over the execution of another anarchist who had thrown a bomb in the Chamber of Deputies, injuring 20. Henry bombed a café, which he saw as a symbol of the bourgeois. When asked why he killed innocent people he replied, “There are no innocent bourgeois.” Henry’s last words before he was executed were, “Courage comrades! Long live anarchy!”
Henry is more what we have in mind by the term “terrorism” today. He 1) planned and inflicted harm on people (viewed as symbols) in order 2) to influence a political situation. He was sure he was right and virtuous, even 3) heroic to do so, while the “enemy” was so thoroughly corrupt and evil that anyone not actively opposing them was also corrupt, evil and deserved to die. There are 4) no innocents. These characteristics also fit Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 attackers and the recent Boston Marathon bombers.
It is interesting to note that neither Robspierre, Pisacane, nor Mcveigh were motivated by religion (McVeigh claimed to be agnostic.) It was purely about power; power either to maintain a political system or to destabilize and overthrow a political system. They all saw themselves as heroes in an existential battle against evil. The 9/11 attackers and the Boston Marathon bombers also saw themselves as heroes fighting evil, willing to sacrifice their very lives to do so. On the morning of his execution, McVeigh wrote the poem “Invictus,” apparently from memory. Here is an excerpt:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Or as Emile Henry said, “Courage comrades!”
Leave it to the private sector to come up with a definition-insurance companies want terrorism defined because they have to pay claims on damage done. Here is the insurance company definition:
an act, including but not limited to the use of
force or violence, causing serious
harm to human life, or to tangible or intangible property, — or
a threat thereof entailing serious harm;
A terrorist act is committed or threatened:
— with the
intent to influence or destabilize any government or public entity and/or
to provoke fear and
insecurity in all or part of the population;
in support of a political, religious, ethnic, ideological or similar goal.
My definition>Terrorism is an act or threat which causes serious harm, perpetrated in order to destabilize a political system by provoking terror in the general population.
Terrorism by current definition is committed by non-state actors. When state actors are involved we call it something more sanitary like “peace-keeping” or “counter-insurgency.”
What is left out of this discussion is this raw naked truth: Terrorism is committed by rigidly self-righteous men on an immortality quest of their own design. Violent repression (and invading their country) adds fuel to the fire in their minds. Bottom line, most terrorists acts are acts of revenge. Almost all of the people they kill are innocent; it is murder plain and simple against defenseless and unsuspecting human beings. Probably 98% of the human beings in the world think terrorists are deluded, vicious cowards. The 98% need to say it loud and clear, because THAT messes up their immortality quest, the prime motivation for their “heroism.”
LOUD. And clear:
Deluded. Vicious. Cowards.