• Ishani Sharma

THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF ARRIVING AT AN OBJECTIVE DEFINITION OF TERRORISM

Updated: Feb 1

The terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ were coined back in the 1790s during the French Revolution[1] but it was only until recently, following the United States (US) 9/11 attacks, that terrorism came to be seen as a major global security threat. It is interesting to note, however, that there is no consensus on an objective definition of terrorism to date, and yet counter-terrorism strategies have been implemented worldwide against an abstract concept. Having said this, in this article I argue that it is not possible to arrive at an objective understanding of what terrorism is, and which groups might be characterized as terrorists. While justifying my argument, I will also discuss the challenges of arriving at such a judgement.

The article is divided into two sections. First, I will provide reasons for the impossibility of achieving an objective definition of terrorism, building on the subjectivity, historical evolution and hegemonic interpretation of the term. In the second section, I will challenge two definitions proposed by academics and international institutions, suggesting certain shortcomings in their interpretations of terrorism.

In the words of Martini and Njoku, “defining this phenomenon (terrorism) is a real dilemma and almost all the definitions that have been given, either by authorities or by international institutions, have been criticized for being somehow flawed”.[2] In this section, I will suggest the difficulties that emerge when defining terrorism and characterising terrorist groups, which essentially render an objective understanding of terrorism impossible.

Pejorative Value

The term ‘terrorism’ is, in itself, loaded with an extremely strong derogative connotation, and as emphasised by Grozdanova, the usage of the term along with phrases like ‘without parallel in history’, and ‘the world’s new challenges’ has created an “enduring narrative focused on a strong response and stern condemnation”.[3] Thus, the term brings with it a pejorative overtone with presumptions of evilness, brutality, immorality, etc. Terrorism is equated to inhumanity and designating a group as a ‘terrorist group’ disregards their justification for violence. Due to the emotionally-charged and negative connotations attached to the term, it is all the more difficult to proscribe an objective and neutral meaning to terrorism.

Historical Evolution

Terrorism has been used to describe varying incidents of violence over different historical periods which contributes to its changing meaning. With the term first being used in the 1790s to describe the violence used by the French Revolutionary state against its citizens, its meaning later shifted to indicate the violent attacks by the Russian anarchist group, Narodnaya Volya used to arouse the masses, in the 1880s.[4] This was followed by another evident shift during the 1920s, when the term was used to refer to anti-colonial movements and groups like the Irish Republican Army as terrorists; with this interpretation later being extended to nationalist and separatist movements outside the decolonisation context during the 1960-70s.[5] Finally, albeit contestably, the term took its current meaning to describe illegitimate violence used by non-state actors and other extremist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Al-Qaeda for achieving their political aims, as terrorists.[6] The methods used by these groups, whether state or non-state, have been evolving and include assassinations, bombings, and hijackings. What is evident here is that the term has been used to label different actors using different methods targeting different groups for different purposes and in different contexts which underlines the impossibility of an objective definition. The only uniformity in all these cases is the utility of terrorism in bringing about change through fear as argued by Garrison.[7] I argue, however, that this description of terrorism is inadequate to form an objective understanding of the term, and merely describes it as a tool for change. Due to the vagueness in the definition proposed, terrorism can be confused with other forms of political violence such as insurgency.

Polymorphous ‘terrorist’ groups

Having highlighted the nuances of the word ‘terrorism’, I would like to point out that characterising terrorist organisations, particularly in this era of interconnectedness and globalism, is not easy. “The current web of global terrorism is not an amorphous phenomenon but a polymorphous one” with the ever-expanding network of so-called terrorist organisations.[8] Moreover, identifying these groups is a major challenge since they can be highly divergent, ranging from small networks and local cells to big, transnational organisations like Al-Qaeda. The lack of an objective definition of terrorism adds on to this problem as no single feature of a terrorist organisation has been universally agreed upon due to terrorism’s ever-changing nature and purpose.

Subjectivity

Terrorism is a highly subjective term and due to its pejorative value, it is usually applied from the outside to people and organisations accused claiming to be freedom fighters or revolutionaries. This can be attributed to the historical evolution of the term. As discussed before, anti-colonial movements were described as terrorist movements and leaders like “Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi were considered ‘terrorists’ by the Chinese and the English governments”.[9] Those who are labelled today as terrorists can justify their use of violence by viewing themselves as ‘defendants of the people’ or ‘warriors for a cause’, shedding off their label and using it instead to characterise the acts of their adversary. The subjectivity of the word can be best expressed by the commonly used phrase, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and makes an objective understanding unattainable.

Hegemonic Interpretation

In addition to terrorism’s subjectivity, its hegemonic interpretation, as discussed by Butko[10] and Erlenbusch[11], allows the dominant powers to use the label of terrorism for groups and individuals who challenge or threaten their position. These dominant groups establish their morals and beliefs as the ‘right’ way of life and an attack on their morals is considered to be an attack on the entire ‘civilisation’, harbouring overwhelming public support. Moreover, due to their hegemony over public discourse, these major powers can get away with similar, if not worse, forms of violence that they brand as ‘terrorism’, under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘fight against terrorism’. This can be exemplified by the description of Islamic fundamentalism, “which provides the principal ‘counter’ to Western hegemony at the international level”[12], as ‘terrorism’ by the West. This distorted understanding of terrorism explains why incidents such as 9/11 are known as terrorist attacks, but cases such as the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia[13] or the US offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq that killed thousands of civilians[14] are exempted from being branded the same. Thus, in reaching an objective definition, this biased and one-sided interpretation of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorists’ presents a major challenge.

Having addressed the difficulties of arriving at an objective definition of terrorism in the first section, I will now critically reflect on two proposed definitions. The first definition that I will explore was proposed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in its Resolution 49/60. The provision describes terrorism as:

“Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”.[15]

The UN described terrorism as criminal acts, leaving room for different methods used by terrorists; however, this vacuum is subject to interpretation wherein what constitutes ‘criminal’ can vary in different instances. Moreover, the definition renders such acts unjustifiable “in any circumstance” but has not mentioned the use of similar methods by the state itself. State terrorism, as proposed by Blakeley, “is defined as threats or acts of violence carried out by representatives of the state against civilians to instil fear for political purposes”[16], and resembles the UN's definition of terrorism but with the perpetrator being the state. However, since the UN’s definition does not clarify the perpetrator’s identity, this can be a source of contention as critics who may want to apply the label of terrorism to the state may face possible pushback due to the argument that the “state holds monopoly over violence”[17]. Inadequacies like these can lead to a subjective understanding, thus failing to provide a neutral definition of terrorism.

The second definition that has been proposed by Boaz Ganor, an academic in the field of political science. He defined terrorism as:

“the intentional use of, or threat to use, violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims.”

By offering a broad definition, Ganor[18] has attempted to include terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations but still lacks the objectivity required for a neutral description. According to Ganor, terrorism can be applied to only those instances where there is an intentional use or threat of violence against civilians, which would exclude the attacks on civilians in the guise of targeting military targets exemplified by the US offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq (discussed above), thus serving the selective applicability of terrorism. Furthermore, Ganor suggests that an act shall be designated as a ‘terrorist act’ if it is undertaken for a “political aim”. However, what comes under ‘political’ is again highly debatable as is exemplified by the contested interpretation that violence against the LGBTQ community should be labelled as terrorism since it is a political problem.[19] As with the UN definition, this description of terrorism is again subjective and can lead to a biased understanding of the term.

Thus, by critically examining both attempts at an objective understanding of terrorism, it can be argued that such an understanding is impossible to achieve.

In conclusion, in spite of significant attempts being made to objectively conceptualise terrorism and terrorist groups by academics as well as international institutions, the subjectivity, historical evolution, degrading connotation and hegemonic interpretation of the terms have made such an understanding impossible. I support my claim that it is not possible to arrive at an objective understanding of terrorism or terrorist groups by examining the shortcomings of two such attempts. This ambiguity in the definition of the term has led to its selective applicability and has instilled a prejudiced interpretation in the general public which can be detrimental for the larger society.


References

[1] Saul, Ben (2019). “Defining Terrorism: A Conceptual Minefield”, in E. Chenoweth, R. English, A. Gofas, and S. Kalyvas (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism, (Oxford: OUP). [2] Martini, Alice and Njoku, Emeka (2017). “The Challenges of Defining Terrorism for Counter-Terrorism Policy”, in S. Romaniuk, F. Grice. D. Irrera and S. Webb (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 73-89. [3] Grozdanova, Rumyana (2014). “Terrorism’ – Too Elusive a Term For An International Legal Definition”, Netherlands International Law Review, 61(3), pp. 305-334. [4] Martini, Alice and Njoku, Emeka (2017). “The Challenges of Defining Terrorism for Counter-Terrorism Policy”, in S. Romaniuk, F. Grice. D. Irrera and S. Webb (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 73-89. [5] Martini, Alice and Njoku, Emeka (2017). “The Challenges of Defining Terrorism for Counter-Terrorism Policy”, in S. Romaniuk, F. Grice. D. Irrera and S. Webb (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 73-89. [6] Martini, Alice and Njoku, Emeka (2017). “The Challenges of Defining Terrorism for Counter-Terrorism Policy”, in S. Romaniuk, F. Grice. D. Irrera and S. Webb (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 73-89. [7] Garrison, Arthur (2004). “Defining Terrorism: Philosophy of the Bomb, Propaganda by Deed and Change Through Fear and Violence”, Criminal Justice Studies, 17(3), pp. 259-279. [8] Reinares, Fernando (2009). “Global Terrorism: A Polymorphous Phenomenon”, Elcano Newsletter, (55), pp. 1-7. [9] Martini, Alice and Njoku, Emeka (2017). “The Challenges of Defining Terrorism for Counter-Terrorism Policy”, in S. Romaniuk, F. Grice. D. Irrera and S. Webb (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 73-89. [10] Butko, Thomas (2006). “Terrorism Redefined”, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 18(1), pp. 145-151. [11] Erlenbusch, Verena (2014). “How (not) to Study Terrorism”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 17(4), pp. 470-491. [12] Butko, Thomas (2006). “Terrorism Redefined”, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 18(1), pp. 145-151. [13] Hrw.org. (2021). Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign - The Crisis in Kosovo. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/nato/Natbm200-01.htm [Accessed 17 Jan. 2021]. [14]UNAMA NEWS. (2021). [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/UNAMAnews/status/1231070401444360192/photo/1 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2021]. [15] Undocs.org. (2021). A/69/209 - E - A/69/209 -Desktop. [online] Available at: https://undocs.org/A/69/209 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2021]. [16] Blakely, Ruth (2007). “Bringing the State Back into Terrorism Studies”, European Political Science, 6(3), pp. 228-235. [17] Weber, Max (1965). Politics as a Vocation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press). [18] Ganor, Boaz (2002). “Defining Terrorism: Is One Man's Terrorist another Man's Freedom Fighter?”, Police Practice and Research, 3(4), pp. 287-304. [19] Stampnitzky, Lisa (2017). “Can Terrorism be Defined”, in R. Burchill, M. Stohl and S. Englund (eds), Constructions of Terrorism. (California: University of California Press), pp.11-20.


Bibliography


Blakely, Ruth (2007). “Bringing the State Back into Terrorism Studies”, European Political Science, 6(3), pp. 228-235.

Butko, Thomas (2006). “Terrorism Redefined”, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 18(1), pp. 145-151.

Erlenbusch, Verena (2014). “How (not) to Study Terrorism”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 17(4), pp. 470-491.

Ganor, Boaz (2002). “Defining Terrorism: Is One Man's Terrorist another Man's Freedom Fighter?”, Police Practice and Research, 3(4), pp. 287-304.

Garrison, Arthur (2004). “Defining Terrorism: Philosophy of the Bomb, Propaganda by Deed and Change Through Fear and Violence”, Criminal Justice Studies, 17(3), pp. 259-279.

Grozdanova, Rumyana (2014). “Terrorism’ – Too Elusive a Term For An International Legal Definition”, Netherlands International Law Review, 61(3), pp. 305-334.

Hrw.org. (2021). Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign - The Crisis in Kosovo. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/nato/Natbm200-01.htm [Accessed 17 Jan. 2021].

Martini, Alice and Njoku, Emeka (2017). “The Challenges of Defining Terrorism for Counter-Terrorism Policy”, in S. Romaniuk, F. Grice. D. Irrera and S. Webb (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 73-89.

Reinares, Fernando (2009). “Global Terrorism: A Polymorphous Phenomenon”, Elcano Newsletter, (55), pp. 1-7.

Saul, Ben (2019). “Defining Terrorism: A Conceptual Minefield”, in E. Chenoweth, R. English, A. Gofas, and S. Kalyvas (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism, (Oxford: OUP).

Stampnitzky, Lisa (2017). “Can Terrorism be Defined”, in R. Burchill, M. Stohl and S. Englund (eds), Constructions of Terrorism. (California: University of California Press), pp.11-20.

UNAMA NEWS. (2021). [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/UNAMAnews/status/1231070401444360192/photo/1 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2021].

Undocs.org. (2021). A/69/209 - E - A/69/209 -Desktop. [online] Available at: https://undocs.org/A/69/209 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2021].

Weber, Max (1965). Politics as a Vocation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).


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About the author: Ishani Sharma is a second-year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs. Her areas of interest include human rights, international diplomacy, and geopolitical dynamics.


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