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The Definitions of a Terrorist

Why There Is No Magic Metric In A War Against Terrorism

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2003 by RDFollendoreIII

 

October 20, 2003

It has been reported that even Secretary Defense Rumsfield has finally expressed doubts about the nature of a "War on Terrorism."  It is about time he got around to thinking about that; after all it has been his job.  I have written more than once that "a war on terrorism," or for that matter a war against any "umbrella idea" rather than an "explicitly definable enemy" is crazy.  It is crazy because it can not be defined.  It is crazy because war is such a dangerous thing to flirt with in such a indefinable manner.  

A simple academic exercise can begin to demonstrate the problems that we face in understanding the language that has been used to define George W. Bush's, "War On Terrorism."  While it may seem to be perfectly clear to some bureaucrats what these words mean, for most Americans and for me this war is about as clear as milk. 

The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language defines the word "terror" as " Intense, overpowering fear, One that instills intense fear: a rabid dog that became the terror of the neighborhood, the ability to instill intense fear, violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes."

  • A terrorist is characteristic of someone who employs terrorism (especially as a political weapon); "terrorist activity" n : a radical who employs terror as a political weapon.
  • Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.

Notice the use of the word "or" here.  It means that there are two different kinds of terrorism. The first version of the definition involves "unlawful" terrorism and the second involves "threatened" terrorism.  There is an implied conflict within these definitions.  The specific definitions of the words terror or terrorist do not state nor do they imply that is a potential legitimacy for instilling fear or using violence.

Obviously by this definition when an illegal act involves the use of force or violence for intimidation or coercion then we have a clear act of terrorism.

OK, from this particular definition what we have so far is an understanding that legal forms of terror is not terrorism.  We may suppose by this is that strapping a condemned citizen down in an execution chamber is not an act of terrorism, even though the whole point of that agenda is to inflict terror for intimidating and coercing a society for ideological and political reasons.  We can also eliminate the idea that the threat of dropping a two thousand pound bomb on a neighborhood from an aircraft is also not terrorism as long as doing so is defined as "legal."  This definition is convenient for governments, since women and children are maimed and injured but of course are never technically "terrorized" by such government sponsored events.  By this definition it also means that dictators who act within the boundaries of their sovereign laws also do not commit terrorism.     

This is where things in our investigation become even more interesting.  When an act that involves the use of force or violence is threatened by any entity then we also have a clear act of terrorism.  Notice that within the definition there is no specification or requirement for a threat to be followed through upon or that the threat must be legal.  It is the threat of violence for the purpose of intimidation or coercion , illegal or otherwise, that defines acts of terrorism.  A sudden airstrike legally authorized by a Government on a peaceful and unaware village to get the population to leave is not defined as an act of terrorism, but flying the military aircraft over the village after the fact would be. 

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary...  defines things differently .... Terrorism is simply "The act of terrorizing, or state of being terrorized; a mode of government by terror or intimidation. --Jefferson"

Changing the definitions of terrorism also changes our opportunities for describing what is a terrorist. By redefining the nature of terrorism we now seem to have a latitude of choices.  For one thing, terrorism no longer has to be illegal to be perpetrated by a terrorist.  That means that legitimate sovereign governments could be considered as practicing terrorism, even thought it may be defined as legal within the context of their system of laws.  On one hand, this may be a good thing because of course makes a more sense and it means that "evil doer" dictators like Hitler can be described as a terrorist. On the other, the problem is that such a definition also opens up the potential of "friendly" acts of terrorism, which is not such a good thing to have to consider.

The point is that when we use language to communicate to others we are also establishing boundaries for ourselves.  As social human beings we are subject to the limitations of the mechanisms through which we express our thoughts. Not only do the choices of words that we choose affect the products of our thinking, the choices of definitions for the words that we choose are capable of limiting and releasing the scope our beliefs. 

Terrorism is a word that needs to be either carefully and narrowly defined or not defined at all in order to be useful. Most of the time, the discrepancies of the definition of terrorism is completely ignored.  We are choosing to accept the concept of the word terrorism with respect to unspecified but insinuated and expected objectives.     

Our military war colleges teach that the fundamental objective of war is the political defeat of an enemy.  Few people who know war would argue that the essence of war is by its very nature the application of state sponsored  terrorism. The idea is to confront and kill the enemy and in doing so demoralize and weaken those who are left with  fear and despair so that they will surrender and give up their political agenda.  Once that is accomplished, power is effectively transferred and the continuation of war becomes unnecessary.  But how is the victory of war to be accomplished by declaring war on a concept? 

Wars on countries work because there are based on geopolitical political boundaries.  Wars on concepts are just strange, unmanageable, unpredictable and if we are to be completely truthful to ourselves, unwinable.  When we begin to think about it, America has never won a single war against a concept, but we have decisively won wars against countries.  The allies did not defeat fascists, we defeated Germany and Italy.   America certainly did not defeat communism in Vietnam; the economics of the Soviet Union defeated communism.  In that way the war against terrorism is very much like a war against communism.   

The concept of this "War On Terrorism" was a knee jerk, public relations gimmick created by the administrations spin doctors who had no place in creating military and international doctrine. The Bush administration had no idea how to win such a war because as the Secretary of Defense Rumsfield has clearly stated, "There is no metric."  The truth that we must face is that there can be no true metric because the awful fact is that an act of terror is a relative thing that can be used for good or evil.  It is the terror of war that prevents war and as Robert E. Lee said, "It is a good thing that war is so terrible because otherwise we would grow too fond of it."  Instead of lumping every "evil doer" into some ridiculous incestuous class called terrorist, we should have carefully weeded out the individuals, organizations and countries that were the culprits that attacked us on 911 and destroyed them piecemeal without the international conflagration that this ridiculous term has and will have caused.       

 

 

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