What is Terrorism?

There have been several definitions of terrorism since the French Revolution of 1793, a period of turbulence that adopted something called The System or regime de la terreur as a way to establish order after the revolution. During this period the term terror and eventually terrorism went from having positive connotations to what nearly all people consider to be destructive and even evil term today. The original framework from which terrorism derived was associated with freedom from monarchy and in support of democracy. Over the next hundred years up to current times, the use of the term, terrorism obviously has a completely negative context today. For example when the average American citizen hears the term terrorism they immediately think of past attacks that occurred in the United States causing death, destruction, and fear.

Three separate government agencies have three separate definitions for terrorism. Each definition listed provides a clear explanation for which type of terror occurs most frequently and how the present-day terrorism threat in America affects the country. The Department of State (DOS) says terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”. The (DOS) definition includes the phrase politically motivated violence, which is an important factor when defining terrorism. Most terrorist acts are committed to influence or intimidate civilian populations and governments to GET ON BOARD with their ideology or political views.

The Department of Defense (DOD), the government agency responsible for the military defines terrorism as “The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological”. This definition also emphasizes the fact that terrorism is based on intimidating governments or societies to agree with to their ideology or political views.

Also included in the definition provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), states that terrorism is “The unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives”. Because the FBI is focused on federal law enforcement in the United States, it points out in that terrorism in the unlawful use of force. The common theme in each definition is that terrorism is usually politically, ideologically, or religiously motivated with a ultimate goal of GETTING people to JOIN THE CAUSE.

Today terrorism must be understood as a political concept accompanied with violence, committed by an individual or group to accomplish its goals. Hoffman’s (2006) in-depth study about terrorism introduces readers to the term terrorism by defining it as so:

Terrorism, in the most widely accepted contemporary usage of the term, is fundamentally and inherently political. It is also ineluctably about power: the pursuit of power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power to achieve political change. Terrorism is thus violence-or, equally important, the threat of violence-used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim… the additional definition of “terrorist” provided by the OED: “Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation”. (p.3)

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has determined from a prioritized list that fighting terrorism in the United States and abroad is essential to homeland security. Prior to September 11, 2001 terrorism was in the background of the national security policy, that changed when the United States was attacked by Al qaeda terrorist. From this there was a huge shuffle at all levels of government and the DHS was created, along with its own definition for terrorism.

Any activity that involves an act that:

is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources; and… must also appear to be inteded (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. (p.31)

Types of Terror

There are different types of terrorism along with the broad and different definitions for terrorism; those include mass terror, dynastic assassination, random terror, focused terror, and tactical terror. Each type of terrorism ultimately causes death and destruction in some form or another. Mass terror is terror against citizens by its own government to induce fear and maintain ultimate power over the people of the state. This type of terror has been known to be present in Communist countries like Cambodia in the 1970′s. In order to maintain control of a civilian population or punish those who may oppose the government violence among other tactics are used. Dynastic assassination, which occurs a lot less frequently then all of the other types of terrorism listed still causes terror among the leaders of a countries as well as fear among the citizens of the country (McEntire, 2009).

The type of terror that most Americans are familiar with is called random terror, and occurs more frequently than all of the other types of terror. The present-day terrorism threat in America stems mostly from random terror; this type of terror poses the greatest threat to America today.

Random terror is violence used against large numbers of people in public places to inflict as much damage as possible. Many people assume random terror is the only tactic employed by terrorists because it is reported by the media nearly everyday and has been used more frequently then any other type of terror in the last half of the 20th century up to present. Examples of this type of terror would be a suicide bomber detonating an explosive devise among a crowd of people gathered at a public event, or coordinated attacks like those that occurred on 9/11.

Focused terror seems to be the most vague of the types of terror, it states that it is terror focused against a “specific group of people deemed as the enemy.” This definition implies that focused terror could be a justified tactic used in war against an enemy perceived to be more powerful militarily. Because of the nature of these types of attacks focused terror puts innocents in danger with the tactics that are used.

The final type of terror is called tactical terror which is when an individual or group of people use violence against a government because of ideological reasons such as anarchism or revolution. Although this type of terror is directed at the government it almost always inflicts most its casualties amongst the civilian population. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was against a government building but killed or injured almost all innocents.

The main reason for this post is to establish a general idea of what terrorism is in a general sense. The media, politicians, and other public figures use the term out of context on a regular basis. When this is done not only is the term no longer taken seriously but it meaning is gradually changed. Terrorism becomes a word to describe anyone that doesn’t wear a uniform, when in reality there are other names for those groups.




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