When I entered the Air Force in 1985, I grabbed a pamphlet by Brian M. Jenkins of Rand. The title caught my eye: International Terrorism: The Other World War. Back then, the country was focused on the Cold War against the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. Jenkins suggested there was another war we should be focusing on.
In his pamphlet, he provided a “working definition” of terrorism:
“Terrorism is the use of criminal violence to force a government to change its course of action.”
And: “Terrorism is a political crime. It is always a crime…”
But Jenkins also knew that terrorism, as a word and concept, was contentious and politicized. As he explained:
“Some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents, while antigovernment extremists frequently claim to be the victims of governmental terror. Use of the term thus implies a moral judgment. If one group can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral and political point of view, or at least to reject the terrorists’ view. Terrorism is what the bad guys do. This drawing of boundaries between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, between the right way to fight and the wrong way to fight, brings high political stakes to the task of definition.”
Jenkins correctly notes that the word “terrorism” implies both a political and moral (and legal) judgment. By his working definition, to be a terrorist is to be a criminal.
Can nation-states be terrorists? Interestingly, no. Not if you accept the definitional imperative common to international relations. Nation-states draw their identity (and authority) in part by and through their ability to monopolize the means of violence. Because a state monopolizes or “controls” violence in a legally sanctioned international system, it cannot commit a criminal act of terror, however terrorizing that act might be. (By this definition, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing 200,000 people were not terrorist acts, even though the intent was to terrorize the Japanese into surrendering.) Put differently, a state can sponsor terrorism, but it cannot commit it.
It’s an unsatisfying definition to many. As Glenn Greenwald, constitutional lawyer and journalist for the Guardian, has noted many times, terrorism as a concept is now so highly politicized, so narrowly defined and closely tied to evil acts committed by Muslim extremists, that the word itself has become polluted. It’s more weapon than word, with an emotional impact that hits with the explosive power of a Hellfire missile.
Terrorism, in short, has become something of an Alice in Wonderland word. As Humpty Dumpty put it, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Such is the case with “terrorist” and “terrorism”: they’re often just epithets, ones we reserve for people and acts we find heinous.
Terrorism exists, of course. But so too does politically-motivated manipulation of the English language, as George Orwell famously warned. If terrorist = criminal = always them but never us (because we’re a nation, and a good-hearted one at that), we absolve ourselves of blame even as we shout, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice, “Off with their heads!” at the “terrorists.”
That shout may be satisfying, but it may also be all too easy — and all too biased.