Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Toward a Contemporary Definition of Terrorism

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Toward a Contemporary Definition of Terrorism

Article excerpt

Before the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, the subject of terrorism did not loom large in philosophical discussion.... The attacks of September 11 and their aftermath put terrorism on the philosophical agenda: it is now the topic of numerous books, journal articles, special journal issues, and conferences. (1)


Our subject is "the clear and present danger" of terrorism. By common consent we have no standardized definition, which is a severe problem in view of the proliferation of attacks and the growing complexity of the subject. Scholarly texts highlight the need with an obligatory, introductory chapter on the meaning of terrorism. The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles defined terrorism as "government by intimidation" based on terrorisme, which is etymologically traced to the Jacobins in 1795, with nuances that include notions of system and policy. (2) A "terrorist," according to the dictionary, is "anyone who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation." The concept, accordingly, has a long history and now attracts international and interdisciplinary attention. Social sciences study its causes, varieties, and consequences; history traces its distinctive events and evolution over time; psychiatry and psychology explore its mental roots and ways to alleviate its consequences; philosophy analyzes its moral justification; and intelligence agencies with law enforcement pursue its prevention.

We are concerned with the issue of definition that underlies research and informs public policy. The subject, though foundationally important, is elusive and problematic. In a report to the United Nations Crime Branch in 1992, Alex Schmidt noted, "The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades ... The UN Member States still have no agreed-upon definition." (3) Walter Laqueur correctly observed about the absence of a comprehensive definition, "A working definition is certainly not beyond our reach; in any case, political decision makers will not wait for a consensus to emerge among political scientists before they pass the measures they deem necessary to combat terrorism." (4)

We will attempt to provide a "working definition." To do this we will derive the core components of "terrorism" as informed by historical awareness and academic research. We will attempt to answer two crucial questions; which words distinguish terrorism today from similar phenomena, and which terms are "definitional" as distinguished from related laws, policies, procedures, and debatable points in academic discussion. The study will proceed in four stages: First, we will survey a number of dictionaries and institutional definitions. They will serve as a semantical prelude to the contemporary field of meaning. Second, we will briefly summarize the historical evolution of the concept. This will convey a sense of depth and breadth of the subject and inform our definition of age-old phenomena. Third, we will survey academic research to identify some important scholars and writings, which mandate an interdisciplinary approach to discussions about definition. The first three stages are perhaps the most insightful ways to gain an overview of terrorism as a prelude to an adequate definition. Fourth, we will propose a refined definition with explanation for further consideration. The problem of definition is an elusive grail of terrorism studies, and we must approach the study with some awareness of its pitfalls and complexities.

A Survey of Contemporary Definitions

Dictionaries suggest a variety of definitions. For example: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4t ed., 2009: "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons";

Encarta World English Dictionary [North American Edition], 2009: "Political violence: violence or the threat of violence, especially bombing, kidnapping, and assassination, carried out for political purposes";

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law, 1996: "1. …

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