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Terrorism is Terrorism? How Communication Exacerbates the Definitional Problem

Why is terrorism so difficult to define? {Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


riot balaclava terrorist[dhr]

A definition of terrorism is arguably one of the woolliest concepts of modern discourse. Its manifestations arrive from a complex mosaic of compounding issues that affect any real brevity in assessing it. Since 9/11 it has been promoted to the forefront of most political agendas and yet no definitional consensus has followed. In the second presidential debate for example, Mitt Romney lambasted President Obama for not calling the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi a terrorist incident, of which Obama took 14 days to finally call it such. The interim Libyan leader in comparison described it as an act of criminal violence. Politicians and subsequently media organisations have been careless, imprecise and sloppy in labelling incidents as acts of terrorism. This essay will therefore, scale back from the larger definitional debate and acknowledges that issues will be omitted. However, by arguing that terrorism is wrapped up in political motivations and rhetoric in tandem with the rise of modern communication, ultimately has a greater impact in understanding why terrorism is so difficult to define.

A Definitional Overview

To argue with clarity, the first logical step is to assess why terrorism is so important to define. Since 9/11 the word ‘terrorism’ has increasingly become intertwined in today’s society, and is synonymous in creating powerful images of violence, self-sacrifice and catastrophe. However, are we any closer in understanding what constitutes it? There are many academics and professionals who not only struggle to grapple with a definition, but utterly refute any notion of needing one. Walter Laqueur, perhaps the most prominent in this category, argues that a definition “does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, Jeremy Waldon and George Fletcher, in separate works, acknowledge that there are too many questions and not enough answers. Both seem to deviate from any real conclusion and believe the best possible course in understanding terrorism – is to know it when you see it.

The British Ambassador to the United Nations also shares this argument. In a post 9/11 speech he shunned the attempts of a definition by stating, “let us be focused about this: terrorism is terrorism… What looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” However, if terrorism is taken as a transnational issue and not a single state-centric paradigm, to simply say every terrorist attack has characteristics that are obvious in all instances and consistently the same, is not only trite, but affects any sort of successful counter-terrorism strategy. Therefore, if terrorism is a global affair encompassing many different countries, a definition is vitally important to understand and ultimately combat it.

It is fair to argue that a definition is imperative in combating terrorism. However, coming to that conclusion is not an easy feat. Alex Schmid has become a cornerstone in the definitional debate and arguably places significance on “anxiety-inspired methods” which are implied on victims “generally chosen… (targets of opportunity).” He interestingly includes state-actors within his definition, which further adds weight to the necessity for a classification, because it can separate who or what are committing the acts. In a direct response to Schmid, Weinberg et al conclusively found no room in their definition for psychological effects and place politics as the primary reason behind terrorist strategy. Bruce Hoffman also asserts the importance of politics and views it as the key tool in understanding terrorists modus operandi. However, viewing a terrorist group in the sole constraints of politics reveals only a partial picture, as ignoring religious or ideological motivations limits the scope of analysis. John Horgan moves away from the idea of politics by putting explicit importance on the psychological use of ‘terror’, which in his words “removes part of the mystery” in understanding terrorism.

The use of terror is vitally important in assessing an attack because, as John Mueller identifies, it breaks down the moral criminal code that almost all populations abide by. Thus, understanding the potential method and targets not only helps polarise state and non-state actors but also allows a better degree of understanding of what the potential aims of a group are. There is arguably not one definition to use and it is fair to say that the scattered academic radar adds more uncertainty to how terrorism is defined. Nevertheless, if a definition is used, it does enable a set of parameters to be implemented allowing terrorist activity to be assessed.

The Misuse of ‘Terrorism’

The understandable academic ambiguity around the manifestations of terrorism is one that will continue, however, it is arguably not the basis of why terrorism is so hard to define. The way the word is used in its entirety by political apparatuses and influential individuals has a far larger footprint in misguiding the real meaning and use of terrorism. Ian Lustick’s thought provoking book ‘Trapped in a War on Terror’ portrays this argument and crucially identifies how terrorism became the Bush administrations political foundation. Patriotic fist pumping speeches that hark back to old veteran sentiments helped legitimatise policy-making decisions and misalign people’s perceptions of what terrorism actually is. There is perhaps little to dispute with this argument especially when assessing Bush’s clay footed notion of fighting a ‘War on Terror.’

Other hazy statements seem to be in abundance when terrorism is assessed and the idea of an attack to have a ‘look and feel of terrorism’ seems to be the optimum phrase when there is no uniformity concerning a violent attack. The blurry platitudes imposed by state echelons is unrelenting and is further compounded by the systematic use of “apocalyptic alarmism” whereby a top down smothering of scare tactics is employed – specifically in the United States. Homeland Security for example, not only portrays the threat of terrorists having the capability of CBRN weapons but also the ability to use those weapons “from home and abroad.” The imprecise and often inaccurate statements seem to have other motives. Fred Kaplan, in The Guardian, believes “policies will gain maximum support if they are linked to the war on terrorism.” Therefore, if terrorism is bound up in political drives for public support it begs a very serious question whether it is possible to separate truth from fiction and thus provide an accurate definition.

Communications Unique Role

Government’s apparent manipulation of the subject nature of terrorism is compounded by mushrooming nature of globalisation and the subsequent rise of modern technology, which in Manuel Castells words has created a “new communication space” where “power is decided.” The expansion of ideas to previously untouched parts of the world and the connection of disparate communities to their home nation has created a complex dichotomy that Sir Richards labels as a “global network of grievances.” The rapid expansion in technology, and the explosion of social media sites has arguably transformed opinions and debates into a virtual, informational space. This, allows people to move “rapidly and seamlessly” within a virtual world. David Betz has aptly labelled this as Web 2.0, in which all vectors of society can interact simultaneously, and subsequently, the public are no longer passive spectators but an active cog in the informational world.

Modern technology has therefore now provided an unprecedented platform to move messages horizontally across an archipelago of national and international borders. If the message is incorrect or misleading it can have exponential consequences by smattering the population with distorted information. In that respect, a political message is increasingly becoming a media message and has the ability to influence all spheres of society instantaneously. However, on the other hand, the role of modern technology also means people can circumvent not only traditional state controls but also contrived information. This is evident with General Sir David Richards’ summary of technology where he argues modern communications “are way beyond the state’s ability to control without threatening all the other functions of that state.” However, this works on both feet and allows governments to wield a certain degree of autonomy in the use of modern media processes. Therefore, as David Kilcullen argues, the ends and means of developing sources of information have a paucity that makes it very hard to distinguish origins or accuracy.

A government message is thus now instantly input into the media and the subsequent outlets play a significant role in shaping how it is defined. If terrorism is put through these many different communication filters, the outcome is a kaleidoscopic mesh of compounding definitions. They are connected to public opinion, leader personality and the usual platitudes around foreign policy. John Horgan therefore argues, to assess terrorism in its definitional entirety; a movement away from the media process is vital. However, with governments increasingly using the term in its haziest context and media being completely associated with political issues, this arguably is not possible and subsequently affects coming to terms with a definition of terrorism.


To conclude, this essay has focused on a very selective variety of sources and is not by any means conclusive in bringing the definitional debate to a finish line. It has specifically focused on the US government’s role due to its unique place in combating terror and an investigation into other nations could lead to a very different argument. However, misinformation imposed by any government can arguably filter down into everyday life and is further exacerbated by the role of modern communications. This ultimately gives a larger footprint and further muddies the water in trying to come to terms with an accurate definition of terrorism.


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