Terrorism Involves Methods, Not Objectives

I am still at a loss, even after reading Paddy Hillyard’s thoughtful reply to all the response essays, just what actions by the United States constitute the supporting, sponsoring, and perpetration of terrorist incidents. I’m not saying there have never been any, but Hillyard does not identify specific actions, only locales. Nor does he offer a definition that would allow us to affix the label of terrorism to any actions that were identified. The closest he comes to offering a defining characteristic is to note the determination by the International Court of Justice that the United States had violated international law in actions taken against Nicaragua (around the time the United States was supporting the Contras and opposing the first Sandinista government). But including anything that is a violation of international law would embrace far more than I expect any of us in this discussion would want to call terrorism. Even confining our purview to political violence, that still probably would be true. For example, the use of dum-dum (i.e., expanding) bullets is a violation of international law. Does that mean that a conventional military operation in which an army used such bullets would be committing an act of terrorism, but that an army using standard ammunition in an otherwise identical military operation would not?

Setting that part of the definitional business aside, I am moved by some of what Max Abrahms has written to take Hillyard’s side on another issue. Terrorism can have any, or several, of widely differing types of objectives. Those objectives range from narrow instrumental ones such as coercing a specific concession from a government to vaguer, visceral ones such as exacting revenge or carrying out what the terrorist believes to be divine will. As the actions of even just modern terrorist groups demonstrate, there are many more possibilities as well—including showing the flag, inducing civilian fear, complicating an adversary’s military planning, establishing credible deterrence, sending other messages, etc. It is not all a matter of seeking compliance by a government, nor is it all a matter of provoking overreaction by a government. Sometimes the objective is neither of those. So it is a mistake to score success or failure of terrorist acts solely in terms of one of those objectives.

On the subject of civilian versus military targets, readers will note from my previous essay that I consider the targeting of noncombatants to be a key part of terrorism. But Hillyard is right that, as a practical matter, it often is difficult to determine whether any one incident meets this part of the definition. Those who compile government statistics on terrorism sometimes have to wrestle with the difficult cases. Uncertain targeting is one possible reason for the difficulty; was an inaccurate Hizballah-fired missile aimed at an Israeli military base or at a nearby kibbutz? Who qualifies as a noncombatant also can be open to controversy. (What about military personnel while they are in their barracks?)

Given all these definitional hassles, is it worth trying to rescue the term terrorism? One of the themes in my essay was that in discussing this subject we are too often mired in semantics at the expense of substance. Are we talking about such a semantically troublesome concept just so that people like the four of us can write articles on the subject?

I don’t think so. There are three other reasons to preserve the term and the concept. One is that there already is a huge discourse on the subject that— however much we may wince at how often it is loosely used or blatantly politicized—is a fact of intellectual and policy life. We need to work with it, to make the discourse at least a little less flawed.

A second reason is that the type of political violence that corresponds to the sort of definition of terrorism I offered earlier—and despite the aforementioned wide diversity of terrorist objectives—lends itself to being countered by certain types of services and agencies, which are the ones in our governments that we have come to recognize as having a counterterrorist mission. In this important respect terrorism differs from some other forms of threatened or actual political violence, which are better countered by other means—such as by nuclear weapons, or at the other extreme, by a lone cop on the beat.

The third reason harks back to Paddy Hillyard’s invocation of international law, which in turn is linked to some important matters of morality. Although terrorism cannot be equated to every kind of violence prohibited by international law, it does correspond pretty closely to violations of some of the more important principles of the laws of war (i.e., the jus in bello, or conduct of warfare, part of such law). One of those principles concerns not targeting civilians. Another involves humane treatment of prisoners (a principle terrorists violate every time they kill, or hold for ransom, a hostage). Yet another is the requirement that combatants be openly identified as such, which means being overt and uniformed, not clandestine. There is a legal, and an underlying moral, distinction between those who are licensed under the laws of war to do certain lethal things because they themselves have donned the uniform and subjected themselves to being the target of similarly lethal acts, and those who have not.

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 Semantics of Terrorism by Paul Pillar

    Paul Pillar makes the case for clarity of terms in the debate over terrorism. He first argues that this area of public policy is especially burdened by loaded language. He next proposes a definition of the word terrorism on which he thinks he and Paddy Hillyard can agree. Finally, he suggests that labels for various violent acts may work to obscure the difficult issues underlying them. If so, we should return to these fundamentals, and agree to put debate over the labels aside.

The Conversation