The Semantics of Terrorism

A time-honored tactic of political debate is to salt one’s argument with words or phrases that have positive or negative connotations, based not on how they apply to the subject at hand but instead on other associations the terms happen to have. It is a convenient shortcut, a substitute for careful argumentation, and an exploitation of emotion rather than reason on the part of the audience. As a tool of advocacy the tactic is irresistible. But it is a disservice to anyone seeking objective understanding of an issue. The tactic distorts and confuses the terms of debate, and it generally masks the issues and principles that are really at stake.

Loaded terms can have either positive or negative connotations, making them applicable to what one opposes or to what one supports. The terms can be concocted phrases, specially constructed for the debate, such as the positively connoting “right to life” or “fair trade.” Or they can be words already loaded with emotional baggage. As Paddy Hillyard correctly notes, “terrorism” is one of the strongest of the negatively charged words in public discourse. Its pejorative power is evidenced by how strenuously people (and governments) try to pin the label of terrorism on what they do not like and want to have widely condemned, and try to keep the label from being pinned on what they do like and for which they seek support.

Struggles over the applicability of this particular label were especially fervent in debates in the United Nations General Assembly thirty or forty years ago, when those sympathetic to “national liberation movements” and especially Palestinian resistance to Israel strove to keep those movements’ activities from being termed terrorism. Today there is greater willingness to call a terrorist spade a spade, even among those who hasten to add that a particular instance of terrorism is understandable, or that the cause on whose behalf the terrorism ostensibly was used is just. But terrorism is still universally seen as a term of opprobrium, as indicated by how very few, if any, current terrorists or terrorist groups are willing to have the label pinned on themselves.

The tendentious semantics that surround the word terrorism have infected much debate about counterterrorism, and have involved other words in that debate. Probably the leading example is the perennial question of “Is it crime, or is it war?” None of the enormous verbiage devoted to that question has shed any light on, or advanced public understanding of, the nature of terrorism or how to deal with it. Of course terrorism is criminal; it involves actions such as killing or assaulting innocent people, which are covered by ordinary criminal statutes whether or not there are any laws specifically defining terrorist crimes. And if the use of military force is one of the tools available for countering terrorism — and it is — then one can choose to call it war as well. The application of either or both of these labels, or any other label, does absolutely nothing to resolve the issues of ethics and practical effectiveness, and not only of legality, raised by such difficult questions as how to handle detained terrorist suspects and whether to conduct targeted killings of terrorists still at large. Labels cannot substitute for analysis and principled discussion.

Invocation of the “crime” and “war” labels is just another example of the use of loaded terms as a form of advocacy. It is code for expressing a preference for certain options on matters such as disposition of detainees or assassinations, without going to the trouble of constructing a careful and thorough argument. Most often the “war” label has been code for a preference for greater use of the military tool. This use of the label conflates the questions of the nature of terrorism, the seriousness of terrorism, and the best means for countering terrorism. It embodies a pseudo-syllogism: if terrorism is a serious problem then this must be war, and if it’s war then we must primarily use military force to wage it. Because it is politically incorrect to deny that terrorism is a serious problem, the pseudo-syllogism sways opinion even when unaccompanied by any real analysis of the pros and cons of a particular use of military force. A similar and all-too-common invocation of the war-vs.-crime notion is to use it to score political points by depicting as wimpy any opponent who can be associated with the crime half of the dichotomy.

Similar confusion has flowed from the unfortunate term “war on terror” (whose exponents evidently have been oblivious to Professor Hillyard’s distinction between terrorism and terror), and not only because of the disproportionate semantically driven emphasis on the use of military force. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy; as Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, “war on terror” makes as much sense as “war on blitzkrieg.” Even if that is understood, the war terminology misleadingly suggests a single enemy, with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda usually playing that role — misleadingly, because even just among Sunni Islamist practitioners of terrorism, bin Laden’s group is only one part of the picture. The “war on terror” terminology also suggests a campaign with an identifiable beginning and an identifiable end. That leads to overlooking the background and lessons of counterterrorism prior to September 2001, and it leads to unrealistic expectations about where this “war” will wind up.

Professor Hillyard offers several insightful observations pertinent to all this, including his comments about how the term terrorism gets manipulated and inconsistently applied. His examples from Northern Ireland can be matched by ones from the United States, in which terrorism from the left and from the right has been variably and inconsistently identified as such, depending on whose ideology happens to be politically dominant at the moment. I also agree with his observations about terrorism being but one form of political violence, about the instilling of widespread terror being but one possible motivation of terrorists, about some politicians having a vested interest in hyping terrorist threats, and about the tendency in discourse about terrorism to mush multiple and varied threats together as if they were a single phenomenon.

But Hillyard does two puzzling things. One is to complain that the concept of terrorism is not generally applied to the actions of states. He refers specifically to an official British definition but appears to be registering a more general grievance. Then what are we to make of all the talk about state sponsorship of terrorism? The United States, for one, has laws on this subject, with associated sanctions placed on state sponsors and requirements for the Department of State to issue public reports. Granted, this is another aspect of terrorism that exhibits inconsistent application. But terrorism committed or sponsored by states — and explicitly labeled as terrorism — is a big part of discourse about terrorism generally. My Georgetown colleague Daniel Byman recently wrote the definitive book on the subject. If anything, state sponsorship gets a larger share of discussion about terrorism in general (thanks partly to the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq-related hyping of the subject) than it deserves, given the decline in such sponsorship over the past two decades.

The other puzzling thing, related to the first one, is that even though Hillyard says the term terrorism has become so hopelessly tendentious in its application that it ought to be discarded altogether, he then gets in his own licks by pinning that same term on what are clearly his own bêtes noires: foreign and security policies of the British and U.S. governments. At least in the U.S. case, his use of the term is another example of condemnation through labeling rather than analysis. Although I certainly have had my own differences with past U.S. foreign and security policies, I honestly do not know to what Hillyard refers when he says, “the United States has long supported, sponsored, and perpetrated terrorist incidents around the world.” Quoting a phrase from the likes of Noam Chomsky hardly suffices to identify what he is talking about.

As for whether or not it would be advisable to discard the word “terrorism,” corrupted or polemical use of a term does not necessarily mean that the term itself, or the concept it represents, is useless. Clearly there is some set of phenomena that most people — including the most objectively oriented scholars as well as politicians and the public — find useful to group together under a label such as “terrorism.” The extensive debate among scholars about how to define terrorism suggests that there is something worth debating about.

The legitimate — uncorrupted, unpoliticized — role of a definition is to identify as precisely as possible what that something is. My own preferred definition is a modification of the official U.S. definition used to compile data on terrorist incidents, which is: “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” One of my modifications is to specify that the “group” can be a single individual (such as Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood psychiatrist-turned-gunman). My other modification is that the threat, not just the actual carrying out, of violence that otherwise meets the definition can be terrorism.

Such a definition provides much on which Hillyard and I can agree. Terrorism can be the work either of states or of nonstate actors. Although terrorism is distinguished from ordinary crime by being politically motivated, the contents of the politics — left or right, imperialist or separatist, religious or secular — is not specified. Although terrorism often is used to strike terror in a wider audience, sometimes it has other purposes.

The definition excludes some things that presumably Hillyard and others would like to condemn. That’s fine, because it is not necessary to force something under the rubric of a particular pejorative term to condemn it. That goes for other forms of political violence besides terrorism, including the open (i.e., non-clandestine) use by states of military force.

Take, for example, one of the biggest past uses of such force by Britain and the United States: the strategic bombing of Germany during World War II. Or to be more specific, consider the firebombing of Dresden 65 years ago this month, which killed an estimated 24,000-40,000 civilians. Reasonable men and women can disagree over whether that aerial assault was justified. The debate would address complex issues of morality in warfare, the laws of war, and whether or not the bombardment hastened the demise of the Nazi regime. The issues are ethical, legal, and strategic. Turning the debate into a semantic question of whether a particular term applies would do nothing to enhance understanding of those issues. You can condemn the action if you want, without ever applying, and thus muddying, the term terrorism.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • What Is Terrorism? by Paddy Hillyard

    In his lead essay, sociologist Paddy Hillyard argues that “terrorism,” as a term, unduly empowers both state and non-state actors who engage in violence: Terrorists, so called, gain in prestige and publicity; governments, who claim to protect us against terrorists, typically resort to improper coercion, destroy civil liberties, and alienate large segments of the governed population – who then turn to terrorism. Hillyard suggests that “political violence” would be a more useful because more analytically neutral term, one that potentially embraces both state and nonstate violence for political ends.

Response Essays

  • Lumpers versus Splitters: A Pivotal Battle in the Field of Terrorism Studies by Max Abrahms

    Max Abrahms cautions against lumping together all groups found under the terrorist label. Not all political violence is alike. Significant differences exist, he argues, between terrorists who target civilians and those who attack military targets. The former tend not to achieve their stated political goals – and this is a usable message for governments wishing to protect their populations. If terrorists don’t achieve their political objectives when they attack civilians, we should ask what other motivations they may have, and address those as well.

  • Democracy and Prosperity Aren’t Cure-Alls by Risa Brooks

    Risa Brooks casts doubt on the correlation between democracy and terrorism prevention, and likewise the correlation between prosperity and terrorism prevention. We commonly observe terrorist organizations with political wings or allied political parties, for example. And many terrorists are well-educated, middle-class individuals. Further, many very poor societies have little terrorism to speak of. Addressing the root causes of terrorism is a noble goal, but these causes may be so idiosyncratic or so driven by small group dynamics that we can’t easily reach them via public policy.

The Conversation