What is terrorism? Few words have so insidiously worked their way into our everyday vocabulary. Like 'Internet' -- another grossly over-used term that has similarly become an indispensable part of the argot of the late twentieth century -- most people have a vague idea or impression of what terrorism is, but lack a more precise, concrete and truly explanatory definition of the word. This imprecision has been abetted partly by the modern media, whose efforts to communicate an often complex and convoluted message in the briefest amount of air- time or print space possible have led to the promiscuous labelling of a range of violent acts as 'terrorism'. Pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and -- even within the same broadcast or on the same page -- one can find such disparate acts as the bombing of a building, the assassination of a head of state, the massacre of civilians by a military unit, the poisoning of produce on supermarket shelves or the deliberate contamination of over-the-counter medication in a chemist's shop all described as incidents of terrorism. Indeed, virtually any especially abhorrent act of violence that is perceived as directed against society -- whether it involves the activities of anti-government dissidents or governments themselves, organized crime syndicates or common criminals, rioting mobs or persons engaged in militant protest, individual psychotics or lone extortionists -- is often labelled 'terrorism'.
Dictionary definitions are of little help. The pre-eminent authority on the English language, the much-venerated Oxford English Dictionary, is disappointingly unobliging when it comes to providing edification on