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Why Defining Terrorism Matters

- May 28, 2013

This is a guest post by Karolina Lula, a PhD student at Rutgers-Newark.


The terrorism industry has grown exponentially since 9/11.  Whenever a terrorist attack occurs, a plethora of terrorism scholars eagerly spoon out their collective wisdom.  The chance to be included in the over-caffeinated media spotlight justifies decades cooped up in small offices pouring over data. In a certain respect, terrorism scholars mirror their subject.  They both love an audience.

Despite their growing presence in the media, academics fail to persuade others about what terrorism is in the first place.  Language evolves and academia is only one source of influence.  The media would do well to adopt their stricter definition.

Academics have their own set of rules for defining terrorism.  Despite intra-field debate, most North American scholars adopt the three-prong definition of terrorism:  it is politically motivated, perpetrated by non-state actors like lone wolves or organizations, and targets civilians rather than the military.  This means that when a government attacks civilians like in Assad’s Syria, when the perpetrators are motivated by pecuniary gain like on the streets of Detroit, or when they target military assets like the USS Cole, academic purists would distinguish such acts of violence from terrorism.

When it comes to defining terrorism, motives therefore matter.  Mass shootings—like the one in Tucson by Jared Loughner, the one in the Aurora movie theater by James Holmes, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting by Adam Lanza, or the New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting—would be treated as something else.  Some scholars provide no distinction between rampage violence and terrorist acts.  But in reality, there is an important difference—rampage shooters are not politically motivated.

Another important criterion is target selection.  Guerilla attacks on military targets are often distinguished from terrorist attacks, which are directed against civilian targets.  Critics of the Obama administration have hammered him for his hesitancy to label Benghazi as a terrorist attack.  In fact, Benghazi was not a terrorist attack.  It was a guerilla attack against high-level U.S. diplomats, hardly a case of indiscriminate violence.  When most academics think about a terrorist attacks, we recall 9/11 and the Boston marathon because ordinary citizens were targeted, rather than agents of the state.

If Benghazi was not terrorism, was the Woolwich murder?  The video footage of the perpetrator reveals a clear political motive.  Bloody cleaver in hand, he speaks to the camera. “The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers,” he says.  “Remove your government, they don’t care about you.”��   But did he target civilians?  The soldier was struck en route to work wearing a military shirt.  And yet the man in the video shows little interest in harming civilians.  He even expresses a weird concern for the witnesses: “I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our lands, our women have to see the same.”  No, the perpetrator didn’t target aimlessly.

This stringent definition may seem silly to non-academics, but its value lies in predictive power. Those who lump other forms of violence with terrorism are clouding their ability to make accurate predictions.  Consider the divergent political effects of terrorist campaigns versus guerrilla campaigns.  Whereas terrorists have an abysmal track record of getting what they want, guerillas sometimes win against capable opponents—like when the U.S. withdrew from Somalia in 1994 after a black hawk was shot down.

Academic research at its worst is obscure and elitist.  At its best, it impacts policy.  Research that yields accurate predictions creates policy solutions that could prevent violent attacks.  Researchers who lump all violence with terrorism, on the other hand, are like doctors who can’t cure a misdiagnosed affliction.

Politicians are notorious for using language to disguise policy choices. Words, the DNA of language, can be exercised to change the way we feel.  Steven Pinker says a “taboo word” may be used instrumentally to trigger an emotional response.  In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature he notes there is “something about the pairing of certain meanings and sounds [that] has a potent effect on people’s emotions” (326).   Although Pinker explains that the “pairing between a sound and meaning is arbitrary,” humans “can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in the audience quite against their wishes” (333).

British Prime Minister David Cameron declared in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich attack, “We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms.”  President Obama, by contrast, studiously avoided using the t-word on the heels of Benghazi.  Whereas Cameron was lauded, Obama was vilified.  Both men chose their words carefully.  In the face of terrorism, electorates tend to reward right-wing candidates opposed to government concessions.  It’s no wonder that Obama, a Democrat, wanted to eschew the word “terrorism,” while Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, readily adopted it.

The media should take a higher moral ground than politicians and avoid politicizing the t-word. The age of Twitter dysentery calls for greater conceptual clarity.  The media are the wellsprings of information, but no longer serve as its gatekeepers.  While academics are still trying to figure out what terrorists really want, they at least agree on the meaning of the word.