Islamic Terror: Conscious and Unconscious Motives

By Avner Falk | Go to book overview

The Meaning of Terror

The words “terror” and “terrorism” have several definitions, including the linguistic, academic, legal, and psychological. The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that the word terror derives from the Latin verb terrere, meaning “to frighten,” and that it is akin to the Greek word trein, meaning “to be afraid” or “to flee,” and to the Greek word tremein, meaning “to tremble.” Terror, says the dictionary, has several different meanings: a state of intense fear, one that inspires fear, a scourge, a frightening aspect (as in “the terrors of invasion”), a cause of anxiety, an appalling person or thing, a terrifying political state (as in “the Reign of Terror” or simply The Terror), a violent or destructive act (such as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands (as in revolutionary terror).

It is no accident that a universally accepted legal definition of terrorism does not exist. “Cynics have often commented that one state’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime document on terrorism). In 1937, when the Nazi rulers of Germany practiced terror on their own people, the League of Nations attempted to adopt this internationally acceptable convention: “All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.” This convention never came into existence. The United Nations has since grappled with the legal definition of terrorism. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime admits that “the question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades” (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime document on terrorism).

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