“It is a dress which is justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.” General George Washington 1
Terrorism is a disease of modern society, a virus growing in an ill body. The effects of this virus can sometimes be ameliorated, but there is no certain cure.
The causes of terrorism are diverse and often one overlaps another or several. It may be social, as was the case of the Uruguayan young people denied their rightful place in a stagnating society. Or it may be racial, as is the case of black and Indian militant groups in the United States. And, of course, there is the political cause: Israelis seeking independence from Great Britain; Cuban rebels seeking freedom from dictators Batista and Castro; Algerians seeking independence from France; northern Irish Catholics trying to destroy British rule and, conversely, Irish Protestants attempting to neutralize the Catholics.
Each case cited was or is one of armed conflict; in a word, of war. Whether the cause be social discontent or national aspirations, a larger or smaller segment of a population wars on another or on a foreign adversary. The feasible weapon is terrorism. A military observer noted, “Terror, it is obvious, is a legitimate instrument of national policy.” 2
The complexity of terrorism's causes, the diverse ideologies that have employed it, the variety of arms and tactics available to terrorists—all these factors have made terrorism one of the most complicated problems of our times. Certainly the scope of the problem defies understanding by any single discipline. Terrorism is a tangled skein of varied human motivations, actions, hopes, emotions, and goals. A 1973 conference on terrorism and political crimes concluded in part:
The problem of the prevention and suppression of “terrorism” arises in part because there is no clear understanding of the causes leading to conduct constituting “terrorism.” The International Community has been unable to arrive at a universally accepted definition of “terrorism” and has so far failed to control such activity. 3
Note: This article has been printed in Air University Review, January-February 1977.