The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions

By Neil J. Smelser | Go to book overview

APPENDIX
The Infernal Problems of Definition
and Designation

A READING of the scholarly and journalistic literature on terrorism, particularly from the 1970s to the present, leads to a curious conclusion: an analytically precise, empirically sound, and consensual definition apparently cannot be generated. Even as early as 1977, Walter Laqueur, who was to become a doyen of terrorism studies, announced that “a comprehensive definition of terrorism … does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future” (1977, p. 5; see also Laqueur, 1999, p. 5). Richard Baxter, a judge of the International Court of Justice, complained in 1974 that “We have cause to regret that a legal concept of 'terrorism' was ever inflicted upon us. The term is imprecise; it is ambiguous; and above all, it serves no legal purpose” (quoted in Murphy, 1989, p. 3). A decade later, Clifford-Vaughan (1987) observed that “studies of terrorism commence with difficulties over nomenclature” (p. 170). Long (1990) complained that “[t]here is virtually no unanimity in defining terrorism, either among scholars or among those operationally involved with terrorist threats” (p. ix), and Arnold wrote about a “war of definitions” over the term (1988, chap. 1). Very recently Nye proclaimed that terrorism is not “an entity” (2004, p. 206).

Such gloomy indictments, however, have not deterred those who write about and deal with terrorism from trying. There is scarcely a writer who does not feel the need to put forward a definition. In fact, the search for a definition brings to mind all the classical characteristics of a clinical neurosis: a compulsion to gratify a need, correspondingly compulsive but unsuccessful efforts to gratify it, but in the end, a failure to learn from the disappointments and an endless repetition of the

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