When breaching the topic of terrorism in a conversation or academia, one does not go far without coming across this particular quote, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. This statement, long having become labeled as a cliché, is also one of the biggest hurdles in defining and conceptualizing what exactly is terrorism. Perspectives differ and in serious discourse, especially when controversy and security are involved, it has been said that the “closest correspondence of understanding as to the meaning of the language employed is imperative”. Etymologically, terrorism stems from the word terror, which generally indicates a state of intense fear. However, one would find the above description of terrorism to be sorely lacking and these two terms are often used interchangeably, resulting in further definitional confusion. There has yet to be a consensus on identifiable observable indicators except for fear, but even so, the measuring of fear, an abstract concept, would prove to be a difficulty, and this is just the beginning of a long list of problems that scholars, practitioners and analysts encounter while engaged in this on-going struggle to find an unanimously acknowledged foundation for academic research. One will find that even though most have a vague impression of what terrorism is, there is still a lacuna when it comes to arriving at a “more precise, concrete and truly explanatory definition” of terrorism.
Just as cultures evolve and change over time, language follows the same pattern throughout the ages; new words are added, forgotten words discarded and meanings are altered. The evolution of language and meaning play a vital part in why pining down a unanimous consensus of the definition of terrorism is so difficult. Two hundred years ago, terrorism was seen as a type of government action to intimidate its subjects. It even carried a positive connotation with its early use as a method to govern a state and was, ironically, closely associated with the ideals of democracy and virtue. It was only later on when the League of Nations, in 1937, declared terrorism as criminal acts directed against a state. The change in between could be attributed to the surge of terrorist deeds during the late 1800s, which were intended to initiate political change with activities such as the assassinations of high-profile royal and senior political figures. These activities were also seen as acts of punishment or vengeance that carried much of the revolutionary, anti-state connotations most are familiar with nowadays. However, this transition is marred by switches in meaning with the onset of the Great Terror that swept Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and 40s, which bore more than a passing likeness to Jacobin’s Reign of Terror, and then once again, back to its revolutionary connotations following the Second World War when the term is used primarily in reference to nationalist groups that emerged in Asia, Africa and the Middle East opposing to continued European rule. Terrorism continued to be viewed as such in the 1960s and 70s, with the inclusion of nationalist and ethnic separatist movements as well as radical, entirely ideological motivated organisations. In the 1980s, terrorism took on the face of a “calculated means to destabilize the West as part of a global conspiracy” and the 1990s brought forth even more additions to the growing collection of academic jargon with two new keywords: ‘narco-terrorism’ and the ‘gray area phenomenon’.
Furthermore, the term ‘terrorism’ comes in various forms such as a pejorative label that is used to dismiss an opponent’s cause as illegitimate or a set of classifications used by states to identify a certain set of actions committed by a non-state organization in order to set off the countermeasures in place to insure homeland security. A call for the justification or a benchmark of what constitute terrorism comes into play given the gravity of the charge that comes with being labeled as a terrorist and the severity of counter-terrorism tactics. Even long before September 11, there has been much frustration while debating for a definition of terrorism and this situation is only exacerbated by the attacks, causing governments and scholars alike racing to arrive at a definition, legal and academic. It is the psychological need to define in order to lessen the fear of being faced with something indeterminate that drives this quest for a definition. Governments need and want to know exactly what they are dealing with to come up with proper countermeasures to deal with the situation if it were to ever occur to ensure the validity of their actions, while scholars need a set of boundaries to guide their research to make it relevant. However, the fact that this debate on definition actually exists poses a serious challenge to the claims of moral clarity associated with proponents on the “war on terrorism”, due to the ambiguous nature of the subject and the severity of the connotations. There are many activities, ranging from war, local gang fights and even an occasional horror movie that can strike terror into the enemy or audience. In this context, the scope of potential terrorism just seems boundless; there is a worrying fluidity when it comes to language as the application and the significance of words fluctuate as the context changes. Even if one does define a terrorism act as an act carried out by terrorists, there is no indication of how to actually identify a terrorist. This perplexity is further aggravated by the blurred distinction between terrorism, guerilla warfare, conventional warfare and criminal activity due to the many similarities that can be drawn from the tactics employed and the affects caused.
Just as we look towards language to direct and guide, there is also the danger of being limited by words. There is an inherent fear of loopholes that creating a definition, legal or academic, would irrevocably make way for supposed terrorists to escape rightful persecution. This indecision is also accompanied by the inconsistencies in states’ definitions of what is terrorism as every state have a different set of national interests, and with vested interests comes different biases. Some states just go with vague clauses and conditions, with suspicion vaunted as an acceptable justification to hold and interrogate. The United State Congress, till to this day, has not been able to come to a consensus and the executive branch does not have a coordinated position on the definition of terrorism. To illustrate the lack of organization and harmonization, each state in the US has the ability to determine what constitute as an act of terrorism under the federal system. Another concern that only intensifies the dilemma is the absence of an accepted definition in the US, which allows the government the berth to “craft variant or vague definitions” that will only add to the confusion of defining, run the risk of breaching civil rights, and potentially resulting in the “possible abuse of power by the state in the name of fighting terrorism and protecting national security”. With such a problem even within a single country, you can definitely see the problems the world faces in this war.
So honestly, when put in such a way, would it ever be possible to truly defeat “terrorism”?
Alexis is a Politics students who just thinks that it’s all about perspective, and money. Sadly.
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