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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Critical Thinking Exercise Why is Terrorism so Hard to Define?

By now, you have seen in your reading that there is not a universally accepted definition of terrorism.  This has been the case throughout human history.  Even though the use of terror as a tactic of war has been with us as long as war, and defining terrorism concisely and specifically has never been easy to arrive at.   According to Laqueur (2001), one of the first modern attempts was Hardman's entry in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, published in the 1930s. This definition was of terrorism as the method (or the theory behind the method) whereby an organized group sought to achieve its goals through the systematic use of violence. 

Sounds easy, right? Yet, the United States has no legal definition of terrorism. There is no organized body of legislation known as the law of terrorism, there is no inherent crime of terrorism, and terrorists are charged with other violations of law (O'Connor, 2006). In addition, within the US government, the State Department, FBI, and Department of Defense all have different formal definitions of terrorism.

So why is there not a standard definition?

Martin (2012) contends that there is an “instinctive understanding” of what comprises terrorism.  But, as we shall see, this “instinctive understanding” is not always shared between different groups of people.  Ganor (2010) discusses some of these differences in perspective from the terms of “national liberation”, innocent targets”, and guerilla warfare.  One standard of defining terrorism lies in the perceived justice of the cause.  Maskaliunaite (2002) gives us the example of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict in which operations targeting civilians are justified by one side while civilian casualties caused by operations of the other side are condemned.  There is a reason that the saying, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, is used so much. 

In addition, defining terrorism also defines the terms on which it is fought. This is also subject to political difference and manipulation.  See the debate in American politics as to whether the “War on Terror” should be a national security or a criminal justice effort.  By refusing to name some actions as terrorism, politicians do not have to respond with policy they have publicly disavowed or disagreed with.

One standard in defining terrorism has been on “just war” grounds. Defining terrorism becomes difficult considering how there are differences in Christian, Muslim, and Asian approaches to “just war” theory.

The status of noncombatants is the prime reason for the creation and formulation of just war theory. Just war theory has roots in Roman political discussion, but is associated with the Catholic Church through Augustine and Aquinas (Hall, 2010, 78). Just war theory comprises of two components; just cause to go to war (jus ad bellum), and just behavior within war (jus in bello). Even though the Western world has been dominated by the Christian theory of just war, there is contemporary discussion that the technicalities of just war theory are unsuited for the modern age (Hehir, 1992), Kaplan (2002), (Patterson, 2005).  Amjad-Ali (2009) contends that the concepts of war and the conduct of war are central to Islamic theology, jurisprudence, and ethics.  The definition of noncombatants is therefore subject to their classification under Islamic law. In Buddhism (Buddhism is not the only Asian theology, but it does have a great deal of influence in the socialization of East Asian groups), non-violence (ahimsa) is a prime consideration of ethics. Jayasuriya (2009) finds there is a consensus in Buddhism that there is no justification for holy war or just war.  Although individual soldiers are still expected to behave ethically, war itself is not moral. Martzen (2000) simplifies the concept of just war in Hinduism to a tradition of Vedic guidelines adhered to by the warrior caste, and balanced by personal morals based on ahimsa  (there are overlaps in Buddhist and Hindu religious thought).  You should also note that there are doctrinal debates within each of these religions as well regarding the principles of just war.  So we have not only differences in the standards between these religions, but disagreement within the religions themselves.

There are also political views of just war.  Madzen (2000) outlines the Chinese Communist version of just war doctrine; whatever is good for “progress”, as defined by the Communist party, is just.  An overview of Marxist literature, the history of leftist governance, and revolutionary activity by the Left suggests that this view of justice in conflict is not unique to Maoism within leftism.

Hardman’s use of the term “organized” raises other questions. Leong (2004) asks whether the term means “well-planned” or “done by an organization”?  This would be pertinent is defining lone wolf terrorism. Leong also introduces us to the link between terror groups and organized crime.  Martin (2012) contends that it is the factor of “political violence” that differentiates between hate crime, and hate crime as terrorism. Political violence must be a characteristic of terrorism from that perspective, but that does not account for all terrorism. Hutchinson and O’Malley (2007) discuss the use of crime by terrorists to fund their operations.  Building upon that consideration, we can see organized crime often works in terrorist mode, such as the drug cartels.  Hardman did use the term “systematic use of violence”, and that can definitely be used to describe the cartels’ actions against Mexican civilians, for example.

Ask yourself:
Would setting a universal standard of terrorism require some people to re-evaluate their own personal politics or moral viewpoints?

From my own perspective, I had to admit that the Allies use of firebombs against cities in Germany and Japan during WWII was terrorism by my own definition; while I would not have used the tactic had I been directing the war, I do not condemn those ordered it, nor those that carried out the mission.  This moved me to understand terrorism is a tactic of conflict, and not necessarily a morally invalid tactic.

Are there other reasons that people may choose to have different standards by which they judge whether an action should be considered terrorism?

Does setting terrorism as a morally wrong activity change the range of policy options used to counteract terror?

If two entities with different rules of war engage in conflict, should they be expected to adhere to the others’ code, or should they understand the other side’s rules in order to win?

Amjad-Ali, C. W. (2009). Jihad and just war theory: dissonance and truth. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 48(3), 239–247. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6385.2009.00467.x

Ganor, B. (2010). Defining terrorism - is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter? Retrieved May 8, 2016, from https://www.ict.org.il/Article/1123/Defining-Terrorism-Is-One-Mans-Terrorist-Another-Mans-Freedom-Fighter

Hehir, J. B. (1992). Just war theory in a post-cold war world. Journal of Religious Ethics, 20(2), 237.

Hill, H. (2010). Can just war theory survive the War on Terror? Journal of the Institute of Justice and International Studies, (10), 77–VII.

Hutchinson, S., & O’Malley, P. (2007). A crime-terror nexus? thinking on some of the links between terrorism and criminality. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30(12), 1095–1107. http://doi.org/10.1080/10576100701670870

Jayasuriya, L. (2009). Just war tradition and Buddhism. International Studies, 46(4), 423–438. http://doi.org/10.1177/002088171004600403

Kaplan, R. D. (2002). Warrior politics: why leadership demands a pagan ethos (1st ed). New York: Random House.

Laqueur, W. (2001). A history of terrorism. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction.

Leong, A. V. M. (2004). definitional analysis: The War on Terror and organised crime. Journal of Money Laundering Control, 8(1), 19–36.

Martin, G. (2012). Understanding terrorism: challenges, perspectives, and issues, 4th Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf version]. 

Martzen,E. (2000). Religious and  philosophical  justifications for war:  a synthesis of  selected  literature. Presented at the Critical Issues Forum Conference, Monterey, California. Retrieved from https://e-reports-ext.llnl.gov/pdf/239636.pdf

O'Connor, D. (2006, May 6). The criminology of terrorism: history, law, definitions, typologies. Cults and Terror. Retrieved from http://www.cultsandterror.org/sub-file/TOConnor%20Lecture.htm

Patterson, E. (2005). Just war in the 21st century: reconceptualizing just war theory after September 11. International Politics, 42(1), 116-134. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800100

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