I was reading the newspaper while I was wainting for my coffee to be prepared, and I read about a shooting that took place yesterday at Fort Lauderdale Airport, in Florida. An Iraq veteran with mental health issues flew from Alaska to Florida, after picking his luggage he went to the toilet, prepared the pistol that he had in the luggage, and then started shooting at people.
A few weeks ago I read about another shooting in the United States: Dylann Roof, the author of the Charleston church shooting. In the said shooting, Dylann shot the people who where inside the church during service. He has been found to be guilty of the charges of hate crime, murder, attempted murder and obstruction of religion.
In light of these deeds, I wonder: if any one was asked what is terrorism and what needs to be done in order to fight it, what would the answer be?
Most likely, I guess, the definition of terrorism will be vague and generic, with the use of explosives, and religion and nationalism as the main causes. Regarding how to fight it, the answer will be to eliminate them. What comes to mind when one thinks of a terror attack is the World Trade Center, the Madrid Atocha bombing, or the recent Nice and Berlin attacks using trucks. What about the two events mentioned at the begining of this post?
On top of this, the motivation behind the attacks is that they hate our way of life, or that they want to convert us to their religion (Islam). Very few will realise that there is political motivation behind terrorism.
But what is terrorism?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, terrorism is ‘the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion’. And terror, among other things, is defined as ‘violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands’. The Oxford English Dictionary offers a different definition: ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’.
Both definitions offer what, to me, is a key element: the political motivation.
The term terrorism comes from Maximilien de Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France. The aim of la Terreur was to purge the reactionary resistences to the changes of the Revolution. As such, la Terreur had a positive connotation, simmilar to the removal of a tumor. After the Bourbon Restoration, in France and elsewhere, the term terrorism acquired a negative connotation of tyranny and abuse of power. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks to the Italian socialist Pisacane as well as the Russian anti-Tzarist anarchists, terrorism regained its positive connotations: to them violence was necessary to inform and educate, and to rally the masses to the revolution. Terrorism was the propaganda of the deed: to throw a stone or to kill an aristocrat was more effective than writing a manifesto. With the emergence of the twentieth century totalitarisms terrorism regained the negative connotation of the abuse of power, and after the 1960s the liberation movements in the colonies raised the concern about to what extent someone who takes up arms to fight for a cause is a a terrorist: one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Nowadays terrorism has yet another connotation: people who want to destroy our way of life.
Why do I claim that terrorism does not exist? We’ve seen that there is no clear notion of what terrorism is. Legally speaking, each State and each law enforcement agency and intelligence agency within each State have a different definition of terrorism. What according to one State is an act of terror, a few kilometers away it is not. Moreover, there is no consensus among academics either. Apparently, the only thing on which academics agree is that there is an ideological or political motivation behind terrorist attacks or as the raison d’être of the organisation. This seems to be the difference between organised crime and terrorism.
Put it differently, a terror act is a politically motivated violent act. What is the difference between a heated protest that derives in a riot and a terror attack? What is the difference between shooting a congregation of African Americans at a church because they are African Americans and executing a catholic prest at a church, for being catholic?
If according to Clausewitz war is the continuation of policy by other means, following the same logic, terrorism is a political movement by other measns. Terrorism does not exist, it is political violence.