The Public Humanist

What is a Terrorist? An Introduction

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of three articles in which Patrick Vitalone explores the term terrorist though lenses of jurisprudence, history, and other humanities disciplines.

At the most recent G20 summit in China, Turkish Prime Minister Raycep Erdogan told President Barack Obama that “there is no good terrorist or bad terrorist; every kind of terrorism is bad.”

After 9/11, the word “terrorist” dramatically increased in American discourse, and yet for many—including the United States government—its definition still lacks clarity. The State Department defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents.” Yet, the Federal Bureau of Investigation states that terrorism is an “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” In the State Department’s definition, only politically motivated violence lies behind terrorism; for the FBI; fear and intimidation are intrinsic to terrorist aims.

“Terrorist” in English texts dating from 1800 to 2008: Image via Google Books Ngram viewer

“Terrorist” in English texts dating from 1800 to 2008: Image via Google Books Ngram viewer

But whether existing definitions include intimidation or not, added complications arise as the political and social ambitions behind terrorism become more ambiguous. In 2003, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged from Al Qaeda’s shadow. Whereas Al Qaeda were clandestine agents forming explicit goals from within modern society—Mohamed Atta shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut a day before driving a plane into the World Trade Center’s North Tower—ISIS has made no effort to understand the West nor have they expressed any conditions to end their onslaught. As Graeme Wood at The Atlantic writes, “[Bin Laden] requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia . . . There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that [today’s] jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bring about the apocalypse.”

The word is often absent from politically-motivated violence from other similar offenders

Obfuscating terrorism further is the double standard to which the public applies the term. Much like President Obama, Pope Francis was subject to criticism for avoiding to say “Islamic terrorism” while condemning its violence. Asked about his beliefs, the Pope elaborated. “I believe in every religion there is always a little fundamentalist group.” He said to reporters. “I don’t like to talk of Islamic violence, because every day, when I go through the newspapers, I see violence. This man who kills his girlfriend, another who kills his mother-in-law. And these are Baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, then I have to speak of Catholic violence.” Many were quick to condemn the Pope’s equation, including the Catholic Herald. His Holiness may well be misguided by avoiding the term Islamic terrorism, but it should be mentioned that a double standard does indeed exist; making terror more difficult to define.

While the Western public identifies ISIS attacks and even Black Lives Matter riots as terrorism, the word is often absent from politically-motivated violence from other similar offenders. Despite an Oslo district court’s official terror conviction for Anders Breivik in 2012—he killed almost 80 innocent people during a far-right rampage in Norway—public and media discourse avoided labeling Breivik a terrorist. A Google news search for “Anders Breivik” fails to find him as such; the article results include softer terms such as “extremist,” “murderer” and “killer.” While these words identify violence they do not invoke the same inimical sense; that a terrorist is an enemy of the state.

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