Terrorism: An Exploration Of Its Definition, History, And Possible Solutions
Terrorism upsets people. It does so deliberately. Thatis its point and that is why it has engrossed so much of ourattention in the early years of the 21st century.
Ask any tenindividuals on the streets of London, Paris, Moscow, or New York for the topthree issues facing the world today and one common response is likely to be terrorism.Inquire further about how the same people would define terrorism, whenterrorism began, and how terrorism can be stopped and you will probably befaced with a myriad of answers, or maybe just looks of puzzlement. The range ofresponses (or lack thereof) from the public should not be surprising. Not evenexperts agree on responses to these seemingly fundamental questions on an issueof such importance to worldwide security, an issue that Thackrah suggests isone of the most intractable global problems at the start of the twenty-firstcentury.
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This essaybegins by surveying the vast array of definitions for the term terrorism,providing some insight into the reasons that terrorism is so difficult forexperts to define, and adopting a working definition for the term. Thehistorical roots of terrorism will then be explored and results of a review ofselected literature on possible solutions for dealing with terrorism will beintroduced. Finally, a conclusion discussing the results of the literaturereview will be presented.
What is terrorism? The definitionassigned to the term very much depends on who you ask, although, as Hoffmanwrites, few words have so insidiously worked their way in to our everydayvocabulary.Oots writes that terrorism has been defined in different ways by variousscholars.Hoffman suggests that most individuals have vague notions of what the termmeans, but cannot offer precise, explanatory definitions. The TerrorismResearch Center claims that [t]errorism by nature is difficult to define.Townshend writes that both politicians and scholars have been hung up inattempting to define terrorism in a way that distinguishes it from othercriminal violence and even military action.Complicating attempts to define terrorism, the meaning and usage of the termhave changed over the years.Complications aside, most people would agree that terrorism is a subjectiveterm with negative connotations, a pejorative term, used to describe the actsof enemies or opponents. The term has moral connotations and can be used topersuade others to adopt a particular viewpoint. For instance, if an individualsympathises with the victims of terrorism, then the perpetrator is consideredto be a terrorist, but if an individual sympathises with the perpetrator, thenthe perpetrator is considered to be a freedom fighter or is referred to byequally positive characterisations.About this, the Terrorism Research Center writes: One man’s terrorist isanother man’s freedom fighter.Whittaker distinguishes between terrorists, guerrillas, and freedom fighters inwriting: the terrorist targets civilians; the guerrilla goes for militarypersonnel and facilities; and the freedom fighter conducts a campaign toliberate his people from dictatorial oppression, gross disarmament, or the gripof an occupying power.
One author includedover one hundred definitions for the term terrorism.Another quoted over ninety definitions and descriptions.The definitions range from those that are quite simplistic to those that areequally comprehensive. The following definitions are illustrative of the broadrange of thought:
Terrorism is violence for purposes of creating fear.
Terrorism is politically and socially motivated violence.
Terrorism is political violence in or against true democracies.
Terrorism may be described as a strategy of violence designed toinspire terror within a particular segment of a given society.
Terrorism is the most amoral of organised violence.
Terrorism is a form of warfareused when full-scale militaryaction is not possible.
Terrorism is a method of action by which an agent tends to produceterror in order to impose his domination.
Terrorism is the systematic use of coercive intimidation,usually to service political ends. It is used to create a climate of fear.
Terrorism is the threat or use of violence, often against thecivilian population, to achieve political or social ends, to intimidateopponents, or to publicise grievances.
Terrorism is the use of coercive means aimed at populations inan effort to achieve political, religious, or other aims.
Terrorism is politically motivated violence perpetrated againstnon-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usuallyintended to influence an audience.
Whittakerexplores the complexity of defining terrorism by furnishing a comprehensivelist of terrorism criteria:
The violence or threat of violence inherent in terrorism ispremeditated and politically motivated for the purpose of intimidating orcoercing a government or the public in general.
The strategy of terrorism is to instil fear and insecurity.
Sustained campaigns or sporadic incidents are applied byterrorists in conducting their unlawful activities.
Calculated use of violence is applied against civilian,non-combatant targets.
Acquiring, manipulating, and employing power is at the root ofterrorism.
Revolutionary terrorism attempts to completely change the politicalsystem within a state; sub-revolutionary terrorism attempts to effect changewithout totally replacing the existing political system.
Terrorism consists of carefully planned goals, means, targets,and access conducted in a clandestine manner.
The goals of terrorism focus on political, social, ideological,or religious ends. This distinguishes terrorism from other criminal activity.
Terrorism is conducted occasionally by individuals, but mostoften by sub-national groups.
An important objective of terrorism is to obtain maximumpublicity.
Increasingly, terrorist zones of action are extending beyondnational borders, becoming transnational in effect.
The vast number of definitions proposed for the term terrorism might makeone wonder if there could ever be agreement around a common definition. Forwithout a common understanding about what terrorism is, how can it bechallenged and ultimately removed as a threat to modern civilisation? Despitethe many definitions for terrorism, there does seem to be an emerging consensuson the definition of the term, according to Jenkins.For instance, Enders and Sandler offer the following comprehensive definitionof terrorism:
Terrorism isthe premeditated use or threat of use of extranormal violence or brutality bysubnational groups to obtain a political, religious, or ideological objectivethrough intimidation of a huge audience, usually not directly involved with thepolicy making that terrorists seek to influence.
Enders and Sandler’sdefinition will be used for the purpose of this essay not only because it is anexample of a current consensus description, but also because it containscriteria suggested by other definitions surveyed in the literature review -violence or threats of violence; intimidation of large civilian audiences; desireto influence; subnational terrorist groupings; and political, religious, orideological objectives.
Historical Roots of Terrorism
Colin Gray writes thatterrorism is as old as strategic history.The roots of terrorism can be traced back in time to ancient Greece, andterrorist acts have occurred throughout history since that time. The termterrorism, however, originated in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terrorand was popularised at that time.Terrorism in this era carried a very positive connotation as it was undertakenin an effort to establish order during the anarchy that followed uprisings inFrance in 1789. It was considered to be an instrument of governance institutedto intimidate counter-revolutionaries, dissidents and subversives and wasassociated with the ideals of democracy and virtue. In fact, according toHoffman, the revolutionary leader Maximillien Robespierre claimed that virtue,without which terror is evil; terror, without which virtue is helpless andthat [t]error is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible; it is thereforean emanation of virtue.
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Terrorism at thestart of the twentieth century retained the revolutionary connotations it hadacquired during the French Revolution as it took aim on the Ottoman andHabsburg Empires. In the 1930s, the meaning of terrorism mutated to describeactivities of totalitarian governments and their leaders against theircitizenry in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Stalinist Russia. For instance,in Germany and Italy, gangs of brown shirts or black shirts harassed andintimidated opponents, although leaders of these nations denied that thisoccurred. After World War II, the meaning of terrorism changed once again,returning to its revolutionary connotations where it remains today. Terrorist activitiesin the 1940s and 1950s primarily focused on revolts by indigenous nationalistgroups opposing colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, resultingin independence for many countries. Although terrorism retained itsrevolutionary connotation in the 1960s and 1970s, the focus shifted fromanti-colonialist to separatist goals. Today, terrorism involves broader, lessdistinct goals.The right-wing and left-wing terrorism that became widespread in recent times includedacts by diverse groups such as the Italian Red Brigades; the Irish RepublicanArmy; the Palestine Liberation Organisation; the Shining Path in Peru; theLiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka; the Weatherman in the UnitedStates; various militia organisations, also in the United States; radicalMuslims through Hamas and Al Quaeda; radical Sikhs in India; and the AumShinrikyo in Japan.Some governments, such as those in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, are also consideredto be involved in terrorism as sponsors of terrorist activities.Some people, such as American dissident Noam Chomsky, contend that thegovernment of the United States is engaged in terrorism, as exemplified by thetitle of Chomsky’s 2001 article entitled U.S.A Leading Terrorist State,which appeared in the Monthly Review.
Terrorism associatedwith the French Revolution had two important characteristics in common withterrorism today. Firstly, terrorism was, and is today, organised, deliberate,and systematic. Secondly, the goals of terrorism then and now were and are tocreate a new, better society.But, terrorism today has changed in some very fundamental ways: (1) terroristorganisations have evolved into network forms and are less often organised inhierarchies; (2) the identities of transnational terrorist organisations areharder to identify because they claim responsibility for specific acts lessoften; (3) today’s terrorist groups do not make demands as often as in the pastand their goals appear to be more hazy and vague; (4) motives have generallyshifted from those that are more politically-oriented to those that are morereligiously-oriented; (5) targets of terrorists are more dispersed around theglobe; and (6) terrorist violence, today, is more indiscriminate, involvingsignificant collateral damage to the public.
With thishistorical foundation, particularly the description of the evolution ofterrorism into its current form, the focus now shifts to possible solutions todealing with the issue today.
Possible Solutions to Terrorism
To effectively meet thechallenges of terrorism, one should consider the history of terrorism, but mustalso look to the future. Kress and colleagues contend that terrorism isincreasing in geographical scope, numerical frequency, and intensity as wellas in ingenuity and subtlety. They suggest that these trends could welltranslate into more varied threats and more powerful tools and weapons, addingthat bombs will get smaller and more powerful, poisons and mind-blowing drugsmore insidious, psychological techniques for converting or brainwashing thevictims more effective, and psychological tortures more agonizing.
Ian Lesser offers acomprehensive approach for meeting the challenges of terrorism. His approachconsists of a core strategy and supporting strategies aimed at targetingsecurity threats posed by terrorists within a context of global securitythreats from all sources. Lesser’s core strategy consists of four components:(1) reducing systemic causes of terrorism, (2) deterring terrorists and theirsponsors, (3) reducing risks associated with superterrorism, and (4)retaliating in instances where deterrence fails. In reducing system causes ofterrorism, Lesser is referring to the long-term goal of addressing issues thatgive rise to terrorism such as social and economic problems, unresolved ethnicand nationalist conflicts, frustrated political ambitions, and personalexperiences of individuals who may become future terrorists. In deterringterrorists and their sponsors, Lesser suggests taking massive and personalactions against terrorist leadership, although he concedes that this is becomingmore and more difficult as terrorists and their sponsors become more diverseand diffuse. In reducing risks associated with superterrorism, Lesser callsfor eliminating weapons of mass destruction that terrorists could use ininflicting destruction and suffering. And, finally, in retaliating whendeterrence fails, Lesser suggests developing the means to retaliate quickly andspecifically to terrorist activities.
One of Lesser’sstrategies supporting his core strategy is environmental shaping, whichinvolves exposing sponsors of terrorism to global scrutiny and isolation;shrinking the zones of chaos and terrorist sanctuary; includingcounterterrorism as an integral component of strategic alliances; limitingglobal exposure; and targeting terrorist networks and funding. His hedgingstrategy involves hardening key policies and strategies to limit risks ofterrorism, increasing ground and space-based surveillance of terroristresources, and preparing to mitigate the effects of terrorism to limit negativeeffects.
Kress andassociates reiterate the first component of Lesser’s core strategy in offeringtheir proactive approach to dealing with terrorism; specifically, addressinggenuine political injustice and resolving supposed injustices.Chalk contends that a state response to terrorism must be limited,well-defined and controlled to avoid compromising the political and civiltraditions that are central to the liberal democratic way of life. He suggeststhat any liberal democratic response to terrorism has to rest on oneoverriding maxim: a commitment to uphold and maintain constitutional principlesof law and order.
The long history ofterrorism, dating as far back as ancient Greece, suggests that this phenomenon maynever be eliminated as a tactic by those people or groups without sufficient formallegal power to achieve their goals. However, this does not imply that terrorismcannot be engaged proactively and reactively. Logically, it seems that thefirst step should be to agree on a universally-accepted definition forterrorism because, without a consensus on the meaning of the term, effectivelyaddressing its causes and its effects may be difficult at best and impossibleat worst.
With a consensusdefinition in hand, the comprehensive strategy for dealing with terrorismproposed by Lesser – reduction in systemic causes, deterrence, superterrorismrisk reduction, and retaliation – would appear to offer the most balanced,effective approach. Today’s leaders should realise that offensive and defensivemilitary action, so typical of traditional warfare, is quite ineffective as asole method for dealing with modern forms of terrorism as demonstrated byfailures experienced by Israel in dealing with the Palestinian terroristproblem and the greater-than-expected difficulties experienced by the UnitedStates, the United Kingdom, and others in ridding the world of radical Islamicterrorists. These efforts may not only fail to ultimately deal effectively withpreventing terrorist activities, but may also produce more terrorists who are offendedby military actions. Alternatively, a holistic approach – one which includesproactive prevention and reactive punishment measures such as the approachadvocated by Lesser – should be employed.
In any solution to theglobal problem of terrorism, the cautionary advice offered by Peter Chalkshould be considered; that is, political and civil liberties should not besacrificed in responding to the terrorist threat. For the very way of life thegovernments of free societies are trying to protect in their attempts to combatterrorism could be compromised by actions that are not limited, well-definedand controlled. Interestingly, this thought was eloquently proffered more thantwo centuries ago by American inventor, journalist, printer, andstatesman Benjamin Franklin in warning that [t]hose who would give upessential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neitherliberty nor safety.
Therecommendation, then, is to deal with terrorism in a holistic, balanced mannerstressing proactive and reactive measures whilst preserving political and civilliberties.
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