Terrorism defined, are you a terrorist?

Originally published 9/12/06:

This morning I heard the news that the US embassy in Syria was attacked by “terrorists.”  This caused me to reflect on the word and its loaded implications.  The term is used extensively in the US in description of our enemies.  I’ve heard folks from other countries use it to describe our president as well, calling him the number one terrorist etc.  Bush has said in the past that if a nation harbors a terrorist, then that nation is the same as the terrorist.  We then turn around and harbor Orlando Bosch and Jose Posada Carriles, the worst terrorists in the western hemisphere (not counting our President if you are of that persuasion).

I looked up the word in Wikipedia and they had a very nice discussion on the definition of the word terrorism.  Among other things Wikipedia says:

“The definition of terrorism is inherently controversial. The use of violence for the achievement of political ends is common to state and non-state groups. The difficulty is in agreeing on a basis for determining when the use of violence (directed at whom, by whom, for what ends) is legitimate. The majority of definitions in use have been written by agencies directly associated to a government, and are systematically biased to exclude governments from the definition. Some such definitions are so broad, like the Terrorism Act 2000, as to include disruption of a computer system where no violence is intended or results.

The contemporary label of “terrorist” is highly pejorative; it is a badge which denotes a lack of legitimacy and morality. For terrorist groups and their government sponsored supporters, it is crucial that they not be labeled a terrorist group; so as not to be labeled “terrorists” and by association as “terrorist nations”. Groups that have described themselves as terrorists are therefore unknown. It is equally important for a group’s opponents that the label “terrorist” be applied. The appellation “terrorist” is therefore always deliberately disputed. Attempts at defining the concept invariably arouse debate because rival definitions may be employed with a view to including the actions of certain parties, and excluding others. Thus, each party might still subjectively claim a legitimate basis for employing violence in pursuit of their own political cause or aim.

In addition, there is an increase in a common opinion that most terrorists are somehow connected to Muslims in general, or of some specific sect of Islam, or of some specific interpretation of the Koran. This opinion is reinforced by the many recent newsworthy acts of terrorism which have Muslim claimants of responsibility which are also paralleled by the silence of the vast majority of the Muslim population concerning those acts of terrorism. There may be fewer terrorists connected in some way to the other major religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and so on, but terrorists from any group, or even as an individual, are no less dangerous.”

There is also this nice concise review of dictionary meanings of the word:

  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as “a policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorising or condition of being terrorised.”
  • Webster’s New International Dictionary defines terrorism as the “act of terrorizing, or state of being terrorized; specif.: a The system of the Reign of Terror. b A mode of governing, or of opposing government, by intimidation. c Any policy of intimidation.
  • The definition of the term in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics (2nd edition) begins:
Term with no agreement amongst government or academic analysts, but almost invariably used in a pejorative sense, most frequently to describe life-threatening actions perpetrated by politically motivated self-appointed sub-state groups.

Look up terrorism in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

  • The American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism 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.”

Additionally, I appreciated this quote by Jason Burke, an expert in radical Islamic activity, has this to say on the word “terrorism”:

“There are multiple ways of defining terrorism, and all are subjective. Most define terrorism as ‘the use or threat of serious violence’ to advance some kind of ’cause’. Some state clearly the kinds of group (‘sub-national’, ‘non-state’) or cause (political, ideological, religious) to which they refer. Others merely rely on the instinct of most people when confronted with an act that involves innocent civilians being killed or maimed by men armed with explosives, firearms or other weapons. None is satisfactory, and grave problems with the use of the term persist. Terrorism is after all, a tactic. the term ‘war on terrorism’ is thus effectively nonsensical. As there is no space here to explore this involved and difficult debate, my preference is, on the whole, for the less loaded term ‘militancy’. This is not an attempt to condone such actions, merely to analyse them in a clearer way.”


I come to the conclusion that the word, “terrorist” is a way to legitimize one’s own form of violence to achieve one’s goals, while at the same time being a pejorative word in delegitimizing the enemy’s tactics and demonizing simultaneously.  It reminds me of Coriantumr and Shiz in the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon. 


6 Responses to “Terrorism defined, are you a terrorist?”

  1. 1 jonolan August 21, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    So you approve of terorists and want to defend them? That’s the only reason I can come up with for your post. Why do you feel the need to legitimize criminals while attacking lawful authority?

    We have a name for people like you – “traitor”.

  2. 2 theradicalmormon August 21, 2007 at 10:25 pm


    My post was an effort to point out the political machinations in the use of the term, “terrorist.”

    Language is such a powerful tool in bending the minds of people. Our government knows this well. That is why it uses terms such as “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” to describe the massacre of a million people that it has overseen. If we are led to believe that it is freedom we are fighting for, we tend to support the war wholeheartedly and shrug off as propaganda the scientifically rigorous studies that show 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq due to our freeing tactics.

    To label someone a terrorist is clearly a way of deligitimizing our enemy. All attacks agains the US military in Iraq are illegitimate in our eyes, so we call them terrorist attacks. It erases the possibility of our recognition of a legitimate resistance.

    In the meantime, one of the biggest terrorist acts in the western hemisphere, the explosion of a passenger airliner in the 1970’s was done by someone friendly to the USA, Bosch and Posada-Carriles, and therefore, Bush doesn’t label them as terrorists. To the contrary, he grants them cover for their crimes in Florida in spite of his insistence that whoever harbors the terrorists is the same as the terrorists.

    As for me being a traitor… I am glad to be a traitor to the cause of the secret combinations that run this country, while being a loyal subject to God and the United States Constitution. Flattery will get you nowhere.

  3. 3 jeremiasx August 21, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Jonolan: By looking at your picture…YOU probably need to be locked up somewhere, freak.

    Radical: Great post…I think that the power of words has been seen by the American people ever since 9/11 when the words “terror” “terrorism” and “terrorist plot” were thrown at us with gut-wrenching regularity…and in retrospect we now know WHY when looking at the trends of politics at the time.

    Bin Laden…hard to find until election time. Al-CIA-duh. Uh huh.

  4. 4 theradicalmormon August 22, 2007 at 12:37 am


    Glad you enjoyed it. Interesting end note. I wonder if he might be dragged out at the last second for political purposes by the Bush Administration…

  5. 5 jonolan August 22, 2007 at 3:30 pm


    So you find these attackers legitimate? I suppose 9/11 was our fault in your eyes as well.

    Yes, “terrorist” is overused, though more by the media than by the government. But many of our current enemies are “illegitimate” and follow no accepted rules of warfare; why should we NOT villify them? Why do you want to lend them aid and support?

    As for Iraq, it’s a total screw-up – rival gangs using terrorism against each others and occasionally against our troops as well. Yes it will end in tears and a Iran-style Shiite regime at the end!


    Thanks! It’s nice to know my icon draws attention.

  6. 6 theradicalmormon August 22, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    “But many of our current enemies are “illegitimate” and follow no accepted rules of warfare; why should we NOT villify them?”

    And our army does follow accepted rules of warfare with our hundreds of thousands of collateral deaths? Are we more legitimate than the Iraq resistance because we are using state-sponsored terrorism while their terrorism is not state sanctioned?

    The US has long been an exporter of terror and yes, that did help inspire the masterminds of 9/11.

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