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Defining Terrorism

Reader comment on item: Terror & Denial [by Hadayat at LAX]

Submitted by Irfan Khawaja (United States), Jul 9, 2002 at 19:56

I agree with Ross Zelman's comments that 'terrorism' could use a definition. Here is one that I have formulated and defended:

"Terrorism is the covert, initiatory and usually sporadic use of violence to instill fear in a population and/or extort concessions for a cause."

The fact that it's initiatory differentiates it from defensive or retaliatory measures, or any sort of justified armed resistance to tyranny, etc. (Justifiable pre-emptive actions are retaliations, not initiations; they respond to a pre-existing threat, they don't create one.)

The fact that it's covert and usually sporadic differentiates it from conventional military action in a declared war.

The goal of creating fear or extorting ideological concessions differentiates it from ordinary crime.

So the definition captures the fact that terrorism is unjust (initiatory), that it is different from normal warfare (in method and goal), but that it is more similar to warfare than it is to violent crime (in its scope and ambition, as revealed by its goal). It also captures the fact that it's unique, and needs a word of its own.

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