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Terrorism - Defining Terrorism

violence political terrorist organization

After noting that more than one hundred definitions have been offered, Laqueur (1999) concludes that the only generally accepted characteristic of terrorism is that it involves violence or the threat of violence. Nonetheless, most observers also include political motivation and some notion of an organization that accepts and fosters violence as a political tactic.

Political motivation may vary from a scarcely articulate resentment of felt obstructions and sensed antagonists to a highly developed consciousness and analysis of political relationships. Mob violence against despised racial or ethnic groups typically has no specific political rationale and goals, despite the tendency of politicians and media commentators to impute responsibility for such violence to agitators and conspirators. At a somewhat higher level of political consciousness are planned attacks by individuals aroused by ideological messages warning them of some threat (e.g., extinction of the white race, loss of national sovereignty, environmental catastrophe, economic ruin) and blaming it on some population (e.g., Jews, Arabs, nonwhites, whites) or institution (e.g., the American "Zionist Occupation Government," the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund). Revolutionary strategists such as Che Guevara and Carlos Marighela, as well as counterrevolutionary strategists such as East Germany's Markus Wolff and Argentina's General Augusto Pinochet, exemplify the application of reason to planning and justifying the systematic use of terrorism and other forms of violence for political ends. Whether in the revolutionists' manuals of guerrilla warfare and bomb-making or the counterrevolutionists' manuals of "low intensity warfare" and antiterrorist operations, the rationales for violence are derived from quite explicit (though sometimes bizarre) understandings of the historical and social dimensions of the conflict situation.

Whether individuals acting on their own initiative may be terrorists depends on how one defines political organization. Wardlaw is one of the few analysts to allow for the possibility of a lone terrorist who uses or threatens violence to coerce a target group, beyond the immediate victims, into acceding to political demands. Theodore Kaczinski (the Unabomber) might be seen as an example. However, the Unabomber acted in awareness that a great many people agreed or sympathized with his views on the environmental threats posed by corporate greed aided and abetted by irresponsible scientific research and governmental corruption. Similarly, the fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph, wanted for abortion clinic bombings as well as for the Atlanta Olympics bombing, acted with at least the tacit (and probably some material) support of antiabortion and antigovernment extremists. That their views were drawn from or coincided with the ideologies of terrorist organizations (ranging from Earth First and the May 19th Communist Organization (M19CO) to Aryan Nations and The Order) indicates that they acted in an organizational context, from which they drew inspiration, orientation, and justification.

The notion of organizational context implies that terrorists may be more or less loosely organized, and that particular organizations may be indirectly as well as directly responsible for terrorist incidents. For instance, while the Saudi Arabian exile Osama bin Ladan cannot possibly be directly responsible for every attack by Islamic fundamentalists, his ideological and financial support for their cause encourages terrorism far beyond the operations of his own organization. Indeed, bin Ladan's organization appears to be more accurately described as a network of quasi-independent militant groups who benefit from his capacity to provide inspirational leadership and logistical support.

So far we have observed that terrorism is politically motivated violence for which organizations are directly or indirectly responsible. What remains to be settled is just how terrorism differs from other political violence. To begin, no definition of terrorism has included rioting, civil war, revolution, or international war, though analysts have agreed that terrorist incidents may occur in conjunction with or as a part of such violence. The consensus is that terrorist violence is more organized and deliberate than rioting, lesser in organization and scale than war. And though guerrillas are often pictured as terrorists by their government opponents (e.g., the Zapatista rebels in Mexico), guerrilla resistance to governmental forces does not necessarily involve terrorist acts.

Differentiating assassination and terrorism is more problematic. Ben-Yehuda argues strongly that terrorism must be distinguished from assassination, but has been unable to pin down the exact nature of the presumed differences. He suggests that terrorism is indiscriminate killing aimed at a general target while assassination targets specific individuals, but is admittedly unable to maintain the distinction in his own case analyses (pp. 38, 46–47). As the number of victims rises, observers appear to be increasingly likely to describe the incident as terrorism rather than assassination. And insofar as "innocents" such as children, café patrons, and passing motorists are victims, the violence is more likely to be viewed as terrorism. But the difficulty is that deliberate attacks on specific individuals because of their political importance may harm people who just happen to be in the line of fire or nearby when the bomb explodes. Moreover, "innocents" may be victimized by assassins not only accidentally but sometimes deliberately—for example, to eliminate witnesses, distract pursuers, or intimidate bystanders.

Perhaps the best working solution is to accept Ben-Yehuda's general point: that assassination is targeted at specific persons even though others may be harmed, while terrorism is characterized by essentially random targeting. Both aim at maximum political impact, but differ in the rationale for target selection: the assassin believes that killing one or more specific persons will be effective in weakening the will of the opposition; the terrorist believes that the randomness of victimization—especially if casualties are maximized—will be effective, particularly by spreading the perceived risks of victimization.

To summarize, terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence, for which organizations are directly or indirectly responsible, that is intended to weaken the will of the opposition by using random targeting to spread the fear of victimization.

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