Home / Articles / Terrorism After the Cold War: Trends and Challenges
Defining the term “terrorism” is probably of little interest to many, who might simply say “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it,” to borrow Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words. There are, however, those scholars who believe that calling anyone a “terrorist” is non-academic, subjective, and generally unhelpful. For instance, Mark Juergensmeyer of UC Santa Barbara, the author of an otherwise very useful book on religious terrorism, writes:
I use the term ‘terrorist’ sparingly. When I do use it, I employ it in the same sense as the word ‘murderer’—it applies to special persons only after they have been found guilty of committing such a crime, or planning to commit one. Even then I am somewhat cautious about using the term, since a violent act is ‘terrorism’ technically only in the eyes of the courts, more publicly in the eyes of the media, and ultimately only in the eyes of the beholder. The old saying ‘One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom-fighter’ has some truth to it. The designation of terrorism is a subjective judgment about the legitimacy of violent acts as much as it is a descriptive statement about them (emphasis added).
It may be questioned whether this type of analysis is useful in the war against terrorism. The definition of terrorism is obvious and simple. Terrorism is any attack, or threat of attack, against unarmed targets, intended to influence, change, or divert major political decisions. While this is perhaps not sufficiently obscure for those academics (international law experts in particular) who thrive on complicating the simple, it is perfectly adequate. Outside the relativist world of academia, terrorism is a very clearly defined phenomenon: attacks against largely or exclusively civilian targets in order to inspire fear. As Osama bin Laden stated in a videotape made just after September 11, 2001, and released by the Pentagon in December 2001, the purpose of those attacks was to make certain that Americans heard “in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world.”