Where Do Little Terrorists Come From #7 - Our Improved Definition

The target matters.

This series began by discussing the causes of terrorism and demonstrating that poverty is not one of them.  We then explored several historical examples that lead to the current definition of "terrorism."  This illustrated that what the American revolutionaries did and what the founders of the State of Israel did meets the current definitions of terrorism such as this one from the FBI web site:

Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as "...the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."  (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85) [emphasis added]

Parenthetically, the site also says, "There is no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism."  Given that we don't know what we're talking about, it's hard to solve the problem.  That's why Scragged offers a subtle, but vital, change to the official definition.

Violence Doth Not A Terrorist Make

The key tenet of the FBI definition is, "the unlawful use of force and violence" coupled with having political or social objectives.  Bank robbery is not terrorism because the objectives are financial, not political.  Not only that, bank robbers don't want to use force.  They threaten force because, as Willie Sutton put it, "You can get further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone," but competent bank robbers minimize the use of force because their goal is profit, not terror.

Until the French recognized the American government in 1778, the only "government" in the area was the British royal government.  Everything the patriots / rebels did was against the law.  These activities of the American patriot forces would meet the FBI definition of terrorism:

  • Harassing the British soldiers to the point that they fired into the crowd, causing the Boston Massacre.
  • Burning the HMS Gaspee, although it might be argued that the goal of reducing British naval presence in the area was to facilitate profitable smuggling as opposed to making a political statement.
  • Dumping tea into Boston Harbor, fouling the environment and harming the fish.
  • Collecting illegal stockpiles of arms and ammunition in Concord and Lexington.
  • Shooting at British soldiers, killing 73 of them in one day.

What the American founders did meets the FBI definition of terrorism, but that simply cannot be.  It's obvious to anyone who's not a card-carrying member of the Vast Left-Wing Nutroots Conspiracy that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the rest, were not terrorists, and not just because they won.

Modern Israelis would make the same argument about their founders: Menachim Begin, who ordered that the King David Hotel be blown up, is not the moral equivalent of Osama bin Laden, and somehow we know this, too.

There must be a way to distinguish the true terrorists - the evil, murderous barbarians - from the good guys who do bad things because they have to in order to make progress against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.

Indeed there is, but the word "terrorism" as it is used today is ill suited to make the distinction.  The word "terrorism" derives from "terror," which is an emotion.  It describes the emotion that the terrorist attempts to induce.

These days, "terrorism" is used to describe unconventional methods of attack which induce terror in people, as if inducing "terror" is an unmitigated evil.  But it's not: wouldn't any one of us want to induce terror in Adolf Hitler if we'd had the chance to do so?  What's the difference between "terror" and the "shock and awe" campaign which saved many lives by scaring members of Mr. Hussein's army into laying down their arms so our forces didn't have to kill them?

It's All In The Target

The way to distinguish "good terrorists" from "evil terrorists" is simple, even though it's been widely overlooked.  It's not in the methods used; they all do pretty much the same things that armies do - they kill people and break things.  It's not even in their motives; rational people can disagree on motivations, and often do.  No, the difference is found in one word: the target.

Who were the American revolutionaries shooting at?  It wasn't British civilians.  It was uniformed officials of the British army and their civilian government administrators.

Similarly, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was not your ordinary Days Inn filled with traveling salesmen and families.  It had been commandeered by the British Mandate government as an administrative center.  It, too, was filled with military and civilian officials of an occupying government.

In other words, both the American revolutionaries and the Israeli founders used the tactics of terror, but they used them against military targets.  There was never any deliberate targeting of unarmed civilians.  History records that Begin gave not one, not two, but three specific advance warnings of the hotel bombing to allow uninvolved people to get out of the way; unfortunately, the British had received too many false warnings and ignored the real one.

Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is notorious for deliberate attacks on civilian targets.  Yes, there are plenty of attacks on military targets, from the Pentagon to individual soldiers in Iraq.  But al Qaeda also makes many attacks on locations of no military value, with no military presence, and no real connection even to governments opposed to bin Laden: targets like subways in London; commuter trains in Spain; the al Askariya Mosque in Samarra, Iraq; the World Trade Towers.  Did the American revolutionaries or Israeli founders target sanctuaries of the Church of England, or the London Royal Exchange?  No.

This, then, is what makes a "terrorist" in the sense that we use the word today.  Not the methods, not even the lack of a uniform, but lacking the conscience to distinguish between who and what is a legitimate target, and who isn't.

We are not in a War on Terror; there will always be terror in the world of one form or another.  We are not in a War on Terrorism; we'd be just as much at war against what bin Laden believes in if he were running a country able to field a proper, uniformed army using tanks painted with his logo.

Certainly we aren't in a War against Islam; considering that there are over a billion Muslims, that's not a war that anyone can win except the cockroaches that would survive nuclear Doomsday.  We aren't even in a War against Islamic Extremism; did we fight World War 2 against Nazi extremism, regarding the Nazi moderates as guys we could work with?  No, we fought World War 2 against the German government which had been taken over by Nazi ideologues as the Afghan government had been taken over by the Taliban.

We aren't at war with anybody at the moment.  War is something only governments can do, and the terrorists are not a government.  The Taliban government backed the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center; we were at war with the Taliban until we pushed them out of Afghanistan.  Since the Taliban are trying to return it might be argued that we're still at war with them, but Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is not a government so we can't be at war with them; the elected government of Iraq is our ally, not our enemy.

No, we are in a struggle against Islamic barbarism, or Islamofascism for short.  Islamic, because that is the creed our enemies claim as their motivation just as Hitler's followers swore allegiance to the Nazi ideology of their Fuhrer; and barbarism, because the intentional targeting of unarmed, harmless civilians is barbarism, pure and simple.

Civilians have always suffered from criminal and wartime activity of any sort and always will; sometimes it's difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.  Mistakes are made and "collateral damage" is inflicted.

But only a barbarian intentionally sets out with the express purpose of slaughtering uninvolved innocents, and only a barbarian uses feeble-minded people to deliver bombs.  All civilized peoples of the world, regardless of their race, creed, or tongue, can unite in disgust against this.

Terrorism According To Scragged

Scragged's definition of terrorism is a subtle, but critical addition to the FBI definition:

"...the unlawful deliberate use of force and violence against non-government persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

We believe that terrorists have political or social objectives as opposed to financial objectives, but we also believe that true terrorists deliberately direct violence against uninvolved civilians instead of focusing solely on military or government installations or personnel.

It's also important to note that our definition includes the deliberate use of violence as the major goal of a mission.  As noted above, bank robbers threaten violence to persuade people to hand over the bank's money, but violence is not the goal; having to get violent detracts from the purpose of getting away with the swag.

In most Al Qaeda attacks, violence is the sole and entire purpose of the operation; there's no military benefit in blowing up an open-air market.  That's why we included the word "deliberate;" violence is the sole object of the exercise of true terrorism, not a regrettable byproduct.

Similarly, true terrorists intentionally target non-government personnel.  In any violence, there may be innocent civilians harmed; American bombs and Israeli missiles have, in fact, killed any number of innocent children.  But neither American, nor Israel, nor any other civilized government intentionally bombs schools; it's only by accident.

The U.S. military in particular is by far the most scrupulous military force in all of history, going to extreme lengths to take every conceivable precaution against injuring the innocent.  In an imperfect world, this doesn't always work, but it's the constant unremitting goal. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff could have their wish, it would be for soldiers to always kill enemy combatants, and never kill the unarmed civilians or each other.

A true terrorist group, like al Qaeda, would never take that deal.  Killing the innocent is an essential part of Al Qaeda's strategy, in a way it never was for the American revolutionaries or the founders of Israel.

It's the distinction today between legitimate military violence and the pure evil of violence for its own sake, why the United States has traditionally been on the side of the State of Israel in opposition to Hamas, and why we will never rest until Osama bin Laden has met his Maker.

We at Scragged believe that our improved definition of terrorism will help people recognize the real issues involved in what's wrongly called the "War on Terror."  We hope it will help the media understand that they should say that terrorists murder kidnap victims instead of speaking of executing hostages.

The sooner we can clearly explain just exactly what it is that we're trying to stop, and why it's so evil, the more easily we will gain allies and achieve our ends.  Words mean things; and the meaning of words we use will win the battle.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Would the IRA be considered terrorists by this definition? For the most part,they only targeted the British government directly.

What about the Chechnya fighters? They mostly targeted the Russian military, I believe.
July 3, 2008 10:12 AM
As I remember from reading the papers, the IRA bombed bars and commercial buildings in London as well as directing occasional violence against civilian Protestants.

As for the Chechens, all I know is what I read in the papers, but it seems that BOTH SIDES, including the Russian military, engaged in violence against nominal civilians. If what I have read about the conduct of the Russian army in Checnhya is true, Russian soldiers engaged in acts of terrorism against civilians and SOME articles suggest that the military command structure knew, approved, and egged them on. This would make the Russian government under Putin a sponsor of terrorism by the government's own soldiers.

It appears that Mr. Putin seeks to revive the Soviet tradition of rule through terror, or at least through complete abrogation of any thought of due process.
July 3, 2008 10:56 AM
There is no question that the Chechens target civilians. Remember that hostage situation at the elementary school last year? That has happened a dozen times.
July 3, 2008 11:27 AM
This is a fantastic set of essays on the subject of terrorism. The problem with most Americans is that a) they lack the ability to think and b) they're afraid of anyone else who does. This should be mandatory reading in every classroom.
July 4, 2008 2:43 PM
For that definition of terrorism to work we must also define the word 'unlawful.' The movie 1776 has Ben Franklin say a wonderful line, 'A revolution is never illegal in the first person, as in our revolution, its only illegal in the third person, as in their revolution.'

The inclusion of the world 'unlawful' makes it only possible to define terrorism if we accept a set of laws as legitimate. Bin Laden most likely rejects our laws and believes that what he does is right and proper and therefore any law making it illegal is illegitimate.

I believe the word 'unlawful' should be removed. After all when should the "deliberate use of force and violence against non-government persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives" be lawful?
July 4, 2008 9:07 PM
jonyfrie is right. There is NO such thing as "lawful deliberate force against the government". So the word "lawful" is irrelevant. But the central premise of the TARGET being the operative detail is very much correct.
July 5, 2008 10:12 AM
Well, jonyfrie is mostly right, but not totally. The NH state Constitution in fact specifically grants the Right of Rebellion:

"Whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind."

However, it's true that most constitutions are not so foresightful in this regard.
July 5, 2008 7:48 PM
What a fantastic thing for a state to address. Wow, no wonder they call NH the "live free or die" state. Someone definitely got it right.
July 5, 2008 9:04 PM
Thank you for your commendation, larry. Uunfortunately have no ability to force school boards to distribute Scragged. But we do have an "Email to Friend" function in the blue box at the top of the article; we'd like to think that there are still thinking Americans out there. We just need to get their attention.
July 6, 2008 8:52 PM
@Petrarch I believe that in the 'not totally right' you're referring to the quote from 1776. If so, that point of that statement was to illustrate the problem with defining something as 'lawful' when you're dealing with international issues. The United States can't (and shouldn't be able to) define what is lawful beyond its borders.

So if a government used 'terror tactics,' ie the targeting of non-government persons for political gain, it should still be defined as terrorism, even if that government is only targeting its own population and has passed a law making it 'legal' to do so.
July 7, 2008 6:25 PM
Let me first say that this set of articles is well-written and thought provoking. I agree with much of what is written here, and much of it hadn't occurred to me before I read it.

I live in Rhode Island, where we still remember the burning of the Gaspee with an annual celebration. I've often thought it odd that my state celebrates what seems to be a clear example of terrorism, but your revised definition makes it easier to swallow and get on with the parades and cookouts that are the order of the day here.

However, I do see a problem with your definition in that it assumes a clear distinction between "military/government" and "civilian" targets is possible, and that it can be clearly shown who the intended targets of the action really were.

I personally believe that the "family" court systems of our nation have become corrupt, gender biased pits of injustice and government abuse. By your definition, it would seem that if I were to plant a bomb in a "family" court with intent of killing a "family" court judge, it would NOT be an act of terrorism, despite the fact that it would likely also kill a good number of civilians. This does not sit well with me (as much as I hate the corruption and gender bias of the "family" courts, I do believe that such an act should be considered an act of terrorism).

At some point, there has to be a percentage of likely civilian victims from a given act of violence that would make it qualify as an act of terrorism, even if said civilian victims were not truly the targets of the attack. Furthermore, there is always the possibility that an organization's stated military target was in reality only part of the aim of the violence, and that an unstated civilian target was also part of the violence's aim. Some believe that Israel has been guilty of this, both in the past and present. Your example of the bomb set by Begin in the King David Hotel might qualify -- how are we to know Begin et al didn't also see the value of terrorizing via the inevitable civilian deaths that would also result from their actions, other than taking their word for it?

Using your definition, a savvy activist will always be able to target civilians and get away with avoiding the "terrorist" label so long as he includes at least one military target in his attacks and claims that that was THE target. He knows that the civilian "collateral deaths" will have the same effect on the populace as a whole as they would if there had not been a military target included among them.
May 30, 2009 7:10 AM
After thinking for some time, it occurs to me that one could use your definition of "terrorism" to assert that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the two worst terrorist attacks in recorded history, both perpetrated by the United States.

While there might be some truth to this, I wonder if it is something you had realized.

August 11, 2009 8:01 AM
Good point, Werebat. Nagasaki was in a sense a military target, but civilians were nearby. In any case, the fire bombing of Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, Dresden, London, and many other cities suggests that governments are more than willing to commit terrorism if they believe it will advance their ends.

Power tends to corrupt, which is why we believe in limited government.
August 11, 2009 11:12 AM
Thank you for your response. We are certainly in agreement in our view on the "morality" of governments.
August 11, 2009 12:01 PM
The Stern Gang in Israel planned to spike London's water supply with cholera. That they didn't do it does not change the fact that a plan was drawn up and pretty well advanced before the plug was pulled. Just saying.

I do agree that the blowing up of the King David was not "terrorism", and I agree with the basic premise that it is the civilian target that is crucial. When Hamas attacks a military outpost and takes a soldier prisoner - that is not terrorism. When it lobs pipe bombs at a civilian town - that is.
September 14, 2009 12:28 AM
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