Terrorism is sticky to define. One definition is:

the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

This seems far too simplistic. Isn’t every war about the pursuit of political aims? Don’t wars employ violence and intimidation?

Here’s another:

the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal

This hardly seems any better. Again, wouldn’t virtually all wars and military engagements in the modern world be considered terrorism by this definition? Granted, not all military engagements are broadly staged. Some times the mission is to apprehend or even assassinate an individual. In this case, The scope is small and although we wouldn’t explicitly achieve this goal through terrorism, the act


of apprehension of an individual (and especially assassination) is designed to strike fear into the hearts of those who challenge us.

There is a difference between “seeking justice” and “striking fear into their hearts” I suppose. Ethically, the concept of “eye for an eye” is about justice, not fear. There is a natural inclination in our hearts to provide justice to those who are wronged. But justice implies that we have authority to act. So, for example, few people would say that it’s terrorism for police to gun down an armed gunman who is actively attempting to shoot other people. Yes, it cements the power of the state, but it’s also a just act by the state. At this point, I believe it’s more about motives. Someone who is carrying out the execution of justice can do so in a very negative way — a way that is designed to make people fear them.

Here’s another definition:

The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.

Unlawful is a horrible word here. Unlawful under what law? Was the American Revolution the act of terrorists? Perhaps… The word becomes meaningless in conflicts where the word is applied. Coercing is a good word though, I think. The idea here is that the act of violence is intended to have a side effect that brings terror to others. So, for example, arresting a suspected evil-doer is not terrorism, but holding a known evil-doers family hostage would be terrorism. Because of the horror of war, there are always small acts of terrorism committed by this definition. And sometimes not just small acts. The bombs dropped on Japan, for example, were specifically designed to coerce the Japanese into surrendering the war. One could argue that this was “necessary” to end the war, but even so, it does not change the action.

The problem I have overall with the word is that it is a word employed to demonize ones opponents. If a person says that they are a soldier in the struggle against tyranny, the tyrant can simply call them a terrorist. It’s a word used to isolate and delegitimize a violent action. It’s always the “other guys” that are terrorists. It implies a certain amount of cowardice.

I’m not advocating violent action against any government. I even have issues with the American Revolution (I might have even been a Loyalist, or at best, not a very enthusiastic supporter). I’m certainly not trying to say that those who advocate violent actions are right and just, but rather that perhaps our own military is not right and just in how they act. Radical Islam justifies killing of innocents through the concept of jihad.  Americans call this “collateral damage”.

I’m sure there are many within the government who agree with me. It’s a constant problem for any power engaged in warfare: At what point do we stop acting as the instrument of justice and become an instrument of terror?

The recent examples of ISIS in the Middle East beheading, burning, and in other horrific ways, slaughtering those that they capture (in most cases non-combatants) is a perfect example of the sort of horror that I believe truly should be defined as terrorism. This is pure evil and it doesn’t take much to convince anyone of this. However, our reaction to such horror should not be a sort of Western jihad against these “infidels” — it should be a focus on bringing them to justice. It places a much harder burden on us. In some ways, it seems impossible. But I believe it’s the right thing to avoid falling into the same endless cycle of back-and-forth bloodshed that terrorism on BOTH sides tends to instill.

What do you think? How can we properly respond to terrorism in the world without simply adding to it?

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