[H/t Contentious Centrist. This post was prompted by Norman Geras’ critique of a “thoroughly confusionist” article by lawyer Waleed Aly which attempts to obscure the definition of terrorism. More discussion here.]
As others have pointed out, I don’t think the answer to the question “what is terrorism?” is as difficult as Mr. Aly makes it out to be. Terrorism is the intentional targeting of civilians and noncombatants by nonstate actors for political purposes. Those who argue otherwise are, in most cases, seeking to conflate the use of violence by state and nonstate actors (for example, Noam Chomsky’s critique of “state terror”).
Jean Bethke Elshtain (American Educator, Summer 2003) writes:
In a situation in which noncombatants are deliberately targeted and the murder of the maximum number of noncombatants is the explicit aim, using terms like “fighter” or “soldier” or “noble warrior” is not only beside the point but pernicious. Such language collapses the distance between those who plant bombs in cafés or fly civilian aircraft into office buildings and those who fight other combatants, taking the risks attendant upon military forms of fighting. There is a nihilistic edge to terrorism: It aims to destroy, most often in the service of wild and utopian goals that make no sense at all in the usual political ways.
The distinction between terrorism, domestic criminality, and what we might call “normal” or “legitimate” war is vital to observe. It helps us to assess what is happening when force is used. This distinction, marked in historic, moral, and political discourses about war and in the norms of international law, seems lost on those who call the attacks of September 11 acts of “mass murder” rather than terrorism and an act of war under international law.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ideology directly associated with terrorism was anarchism. Anarchists, advocating what they termed “propaganda by deed,” attempted to assassinate heads of state, religious leaders, members of the monarchy, and economic elites. Benedict Anderson notes:
Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 by bomb-throwing radicals calling themselves The People’s Will was followed over the next twenty-five years by the killing of a French president, and Italian monarch, an Austrian empress and an heir-apparent, a Portuguese king and his heir, a Spanish prime minister, two America presidents, a king of Greece, a king of Serbia, and powerful conservative politicians in Russia, Ireland and Japan.
For the anarchists and other radical advocates of attentats, the significance of the act transcended the individual perpetrator and victim. The most devoted revolutionaries believed, dreamed, these acts would set a spark in the minds of the public. That their “noble act” would inspire others to do the same. The stereotypical image of the mad, black-cloaked anarchist, bomb in hand, was born.
In addition to the anarchists, David Rappoport, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, identifies three additional waves of terrorism. The second wave was fostered by anti-colonial movements, the third by the New Left and the current wave is typified by religiously motivated violence:
The “Anarchist wave” was the first global or truly international terrorist experience in history; the “anticolonial wave” began in the 1920s and lasted about forty years. Then came the “New Left wave,” which diminished greatly as the twentieth century closed, leaving only a few groups active today in Nepal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Peru and Colombia. In 1979 a “religious wave” emerged; if the pattern of its three predecessors is relevant, it could disappear by 2025, at which time a new wave might emerge. The uniqueness and persistence of the wave experience indicates that terror is deeply rooted in modern culture.
Read Professor Rappoport’s Four Waves of Modern Terrorism here.