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Defining terrorism

Do forms of psychological terrorism such as, feudalism, imperialism, and ideological repression not fall into the same violence category? They also induce psychological terror. Shouldn’t they also be categorized as violence?

By Archana Thapa

Gaurav KC

While the shocking news of Mumbai bomb blast was still fresh on peoples’ mind, the immediate news of Oslo blast and human causality followed through media channels. “Two blasts in two continents within a month! What can provoke anyone to such an extent!” wondered my daughter reading the coverage of the same in MSN headlines. Appalling extremity of human hate and anger that harmed innocent lives heightened her sense of anxiety. My automated response, “It is an act of terrorism,” could not calm her. More confused than ever, she shot back, “Why would anyone do such a thing? And what is terrorism?”  

Aware of the contradictions concerning the meaning of the word, I rummaged through the stacks of definitions to find a more fitting one: “The unlawful, threatened use of force and violence that coerce, intimidate or hurt people, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives is called terrorism.” I was aware that my inadequate definition does not address historical violence perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, including various wars that also fall into the same category described as “terrorism.” For the moment, however, my explanation convinced my daughter and the whole issue was laid to rest.  

The discussion, however, stayed on my mind for some time. How could have I defined the term ‘terrorism’ and ‘violence’ exactly to the point when there are various new kinds of violence today that never existed before! Nietzsche had rightly written that things that have no history can only be defined appropriately. Terrorism and violence, needless to say, have had a long history and it is difficult to contain them within one definition. Modern forms of violence are taking on a millenarian and apocalyptic tone. Our present society is witnessing the emergence of newer forms of violence based on ecological, cultural, quasi-religious, political and many other forms that are criminal in nature. The tricky part is where to place them.  

Do forms of psychological terrorism such as, feudalism, imperialism, and ideological repression not fall into the same violence category? They also induce psychological terror. Shouldn’t they also be categorized as violence? Also, the defining line blurs when the concerns of army and guerrilla warfare, political terrorism and criminal gangs, and homegrown terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism occur.  

There is not a relatively clear dividing line between good violence and bad violence. The point to note is that however complicated the definition be, terrorism never becomes a synonym for civil war, banditry, or guerrilla warfare. Wonder why! If the sufferers condemn the motives and characters of terrorism, the perpetrators justify their violence with “legitimate” reasons. During the 1960s and 70s, when many understood act of terrorism as the extreme left wing inspiration, they also blamed establishment of unjust societies as the prime reason for terrorism. The assumption, then, was that the just and ideal structures of political, social and economy will automatically erase terrorism from the face of humanity. Such people reasoned terrorists’ attacks as justice-seekers’ desperate resistance against the intolerable conditions of unjust societies. But terrorism today no longer represents merely the justice seekers’ reactions of ultimatum; rather it represents extreme right and left ideologies resulting in hate campaign. The earlier definitions fail to fit in the newer contexts of the present.

The first written use of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ occurred in 1795 and was related to the “Reign of Terror” instituted by the French government. The Jacobins who led the government at the time claimed themselves as revolutionaries; nevertheless, their successors later pronounced those violent revolutionary activities as terrorist activities. Much painstaking effort has gone into defining and rephrasing the term since then, yet none can encompass the phenomenon in one single definition.  
In many circumstances the armed groups justify their use of terror as legitimate resistance against ruling powers.  

Things remain unexplained: If violent act igniting terror is to be considered terrorist act then how can one define states’ use of violence during colonial struggles for liberation? And, if violence terrorizes public then how can one explain the attack on property or infrastructure because a blast or attack cannot frighten inanimate objects? And, can threats of harm be considered terrorist act where the act of violence is not materialized and merely the possibility of it terrorizes public? We can twist and turn the definitions as much as we want, but cannot wring one definition that explains the phenomenon well.  

Indeed, historical tyrannies did not cause any less terror and were no less violent. However, with the invention of modern instruments of mass destruction, human existence is getting more precarious than ever. Today science and technologies have made enormous progress, yet human nature has not changed much for better. There are as much fanaticism and madness (or may be more than ever) as there were in the past. Generally, many terrorists’ acts are motivated and influenced by some political ‘self-interest’. Thus, there is the difference between violence induced with political agendas and non-political violence resulting in murder or casualties of road accidents. 

Furthermore, the concept of terrorism also supports the idea that violent terrorist acts can never be inflicted by the state. Due to the denial of the fact that a state can be a terrorist, many hostile and violent activities of states easily get off the hook with the interpretation ‘struggle of good against evil’. The shaky assumptions such as violence inflicted on civilians is terrorism, and violence perpetrated on army/soldiers is warfare blurs the thin line between terrorism and self-defence.  

Often various legal, moral, or behavioural perspectives are used to interpret and to credit or discredit those acts of violence. While various legal and moral causes are used to justify or to condemn terrorist acts, to me, the idea of ‘just terrorism’ seems simply bizarre. Whatever be the ‘just’ reason and however justified or validated violent actions be, nothing surmounts the pain and grief that results from such acts. I wonder how long will we cloud our reasoning with exhaustive definitions and illusive interpretations? While the phenomenon of terrorism may signify different meaning to different people and achieving a consensus may not be an important end in itself, for me, terrorism is much more than the violent acts committed by those we disapprove of.  

[The writer is doing her Ph.D in English from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal. She can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ]


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Nepali Samaj UK’s editorial policy.

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