ADRIAN GUELKE is Professor of Politics at The Queen's University of Belfast.
In August 1998, a series of events prompted a new wave of concern about terrorism. The bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed hundreds of people; in the town of Omagh, the most deadly attack of the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland occurred; a pipe-bomb exploded at a Cape Town Planet Hollywood, injuring scores of tourists. However, these three events had nothing in common, despite a false claim of responsibility in the Cape Town case that appeared to link the attack to the US response to the embassy bombings. In fact, the very term terrorism misleads by its implication that certain acts of violence can be treated as a single phenomenon, notwithstanding their different origins and the variety of motivations of their perpetrators.
The Definitional Mystery
Also problematic is the absolutism of the term terrorism. Despite the different contexts in which violence occurs, and the varying inclinations of perpetrators to jeopardize the lives of innocent bystanders, Western governments have tended to use the term to demonize any violent group. Although in practice, Western liberal democracies make moral and political distinctions between the use of violence in different situations, the concept of terrorism remains an obstacle to their doing so. Authoritarian regimes elsewhere have found the power of the word just as irresistible.
Why terrorism remains one of the most misleading words in the English language is best demonstrated in a historical context. The dictionary definition is "the use of violence so as to strike with terror or to create a climate of extreme fear." Given the imprecise nature of this definition, the word terrorism has endured several interpretative phases over the years. Originally, in the 18th century, the term primarily characterized brutal actions of the state. For example, during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, terrorism described the widespread guillotining of the aristocracy and other citizens. Only during the 19th century did the definition of terrorism expand to include violence from below, such as the hostile acts of anarchists and the indiscriminate killing of landlords and their agents during Irish agrarian conflicts. Another meaning of the word terrorist that gained prominence during the period was an alarmist or a scare-monger. Although that particular usage is now obsolete, it could be applied to much current writing on the subject of terrorism; however, the revival of earlier meanings would only compound the definitional confusion that exists today.
Today, terrorism mainly denotes the activities of small groups engaged in campaigns of clandestine political violence. Yet a moment's reflection suggests that of all forms of brutality, by far the most terrifying is that of the original 18th century variety, exercised openly by heavily armed agents of the state. Some writers on terrorism favor this concept of state terrorism as a tool of analysis because they believe that the term should encompass regimes which brutalize their own citizens. However, the notion of state terrorism remains problematic for two main reasons. First, it is often confused with the notion of "state-sponsored terrorism" promoted in the United States by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. During the 1980s, the phrase state-sponsored terrorism did not apply to regimes that intimidated their own citizens per se; but instead to those which supported terrorist groups operating in other countries. Thus, the United States labeled the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein a terrorist state, not for using chemical weapons against Kurds within Iraq, but for assisting the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in its hostile acts against Turkey. Second, for reasons explained later in this article, the concept of state terrorism generally encompasses only extremely brutal regimes without any redeeming characteristics. …