Defining Terrorism

It’s essential. It’s also impossible. 

Now may seem like an odd moment to be worrying that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If ever there was a man of violence who didn’t pose this issue, it is Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden is triply easy to classify. First, the attack of Sept. 11, assuming he was responsible for it, was on a murderous scale that makes quibbling over definitions seem absurd. Second, his political vision is the opposite of freedom: a repressive clerical state. Third, his method is “terrorism” in the narrowest definitional sense. It is designed to spread terror, almost apart from any larger goal.

Nevertheless, the definition of the word terrorism is a problem in what we’d better start calling the war effort. It’s a problem for journalists: Reuters has banned the word in reference to Sept. 11, making an admirable concern for the safety of their reporters look like an idiotic moral relativism.

The definition of terrorism is a problem for law enforcement and civil liberties. If we’re going to compromise our liberties over it without turning our country into a police state, we want the definition to be as narrow as possible and still do the job. The Justice Department’s draft anti-terrorism bill defines terrorism to include “injury to government property” and “computer trespass,” which seems way too broad. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times quotes the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Porter Goss, R.-Fla., complaining that the bill could define terrorism to include bombing an abortion clinic—a definition that will not strike many other people as unreasonable.

Above all, the definition of terrorism is a problem because President Bush has chosen to define our mission as a war against “terrorism,” not just against the perpetrators of the particular crime of Sept. 11. And he has promised victory. True, he has limited his goal to victory over terrorism of “global reach,” but that is presumably a practical limitation, not a moral one.

The advantages of defining the war as one against terrorism, not just Osama Bin Laden, are obvious: It helps in rallying both the American citizenry and other nations to the cause, and if things go well it creates an opportunity to take care of other items on the agenda, such as Saddam Hussein. But the disadvantages are also obvious. First, unlike a war against Osama Bin Laden specifically, a war against “terrorism” is one we cannot win. Terrorism is like a chronic disease that can be controlled and suppressed, but not cured. By promising a total cure, Bush is setting America and himself up to turn victory into the appearance of defeat.

Second, using “terrorism” to win the support of other nations can backfire unless you have a definition you are willing to apply consistently. And there is no such definition. Defining terrorism was a major industry in Washington during the 1980s, when a definition was badly needed to explain why we were supporting a guerrilla movement against the government of Nicaragua and doing the opposite in El Salvador. No definition ever succeeded.

The difficulty is coming up with a definition of terrorism that does not depend on whose ox is gored. Otherwise you are conceding that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. The concept of terrorism is supposed to be a shortcut to the moral high ground. That is what makes it so useful. It says: The end doesn’t justify the means. We don’t need to argue about whose cause is right and whose is wrong because certain behavior makes you the bad guy however noble your cause.

So what distinguishes terrorism? Is it the scope of the harm? Most terrorist actions are fairly small-scale compared with the death and destruction committed by nation-states acting in their official capacities. Even Sept. 11 killed fewer people than, say, the bomb on Hiroshima—an act that many Americans find easy to defend.

So can “terrorism” mean acts of violence in support of political goals except when committed by a government? This sounds deeply cynical but actually makes a lot of sense. Giving governments a monopoly on violence is how we bring order out of chaos in the world. No matter how successful we are in developing international courts to prosecute official behavior (such as the atrocities of Slobodan Milosevic) as crimes against humanity, governments will be held to a lower standard than free-lance evildoers for the foreseeable future.

The difficulty is that looking for practical ways to get at furtive and elusive terrorists (or looking for sticks to beat other governments with) inevitably leads to the concept of “state-sponsored terrorism.” This gives you someone to attack—and is often factually accurate—but is a hopeless conceptual muddle if non-government is the key to defining terrorism. “State-sponsored” also fails to distinguish the anti-Taliban rebel groups we’re flooding with help from other groups we’re trying to destroy.

So can terrorism be defined as certain gruesome practices that are unacceptable no matter what the cause? As tactics aimed at civilian non-combatants rather than professional soldiers? As strategies literally designed to create terror—fear, panic, despair—as their primary purpose? All these notions are carted out regularly, but none does the trick. All, in fact, are doubly inadequate: They leave out people you wish to include, and they include people you don’t think deserve the label “terrorist” (possibly because you are supporting them financially or supplying them with weapons).

The most accurate definition of terrorism may be the famous Potter Stewart standard of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that kind of frankness would rob the term of its moral power—and, more important of course, most of its propaganda power as well.