Monday, December 18, 2006

The Nature of Terrorism

So, I'm going to try something a little bit different. This past semester, I wrote a paper that discussed the nature of terrorism, and proposed a definition and a system of classification. It is quite long, so instead of posting it here in full, I'm going to post parts of it at a time, and then interlink it. I hope people are interested in it, cause I had fun writing it, and I think the points I made are pretty good points. So, read on, and feel free to give me comments...

The exact definition of terrorism has caused academics and politicians difficulties for decades. It is a very important concept to clarify, but there seems to be as many definitions as there are agencies and writers trying to define the term. These definitions range across a spectrum, and while they differ on many specific issues, there are a few concepts that are included in almost every attempt. It can be generally agreed upon that terrorism is violence, and that violence is used for a specific purpose. However, the nature of that violence and the nature of the purpose are defined differently, with some scholars and bureaucrats being more inclusive while others are more specific. This paper will explore these definitions and point out the significant aspects of each, while also exploring contributing issues - such as the nature of guerilla warfare and the concept of state terrorism - in an attempt to offer a more exact and complete definition.
Just as confusing and complicated as the issue of "what is terrorism," is the issue of the different kinds of terrorism that exist. Is there a substantial difference in the way that different terrorists (whoever they are) carry out their objectives? Do terrorist groups (whatever form they may take) have commonalities in their objectives? And, if these commonalities or differences exist, is there any way to create a framework to better understand the nature of terrorism? This paper proposes that there is a way to classify the majority of terrorist groups, and it will explain the system while giving examples for each type.
A rational observer might be tempted to ask the simple question: Why bother with an exact and specific definition? This is especially true when there is such disagreement and almost no hope of reaching consensus, and when most people agree that terrorism in whatever form is a bad thing that needs to be defeated. The reader might argue that a definition such as the one sought by this paper is a problem better left for academics, and then only after everything is settled and the immediate threat of terrorism has abated. While this point is valid, understanding the threat and its tactics is crucial to being able to combat that threat by developing useful strategies. Other factors must also be considered, such as society’s response in dealing with terrorism. Terrorism is fought in more locations than just on the battlefields spread across the world. We fight terrorism in the United States, where it is a tactic used by ‘homegrown’ dissidents. We do this using legal structures and protection of vital and vulnerable areas in our cities, but this is done in the western world of public opinion. We need to be careful that we don’t over-react, and target innocent people in our midst. We need to have a useful definition of terrorism, so that prosecutors and journalists will be able to describe violent actions appropriately, so that the right people are caught and the rights of the innocent are not infringed upon. James Fallows pointed out that the biggest threat caused by terrorists is how we allow them to change our society and culture in a negative way.(Link) Our reaction is potentially much more damaging to our long-term cultural health than any bomb the terrorist might (and probably will) set off inside the U.S. or anywhere else. If we become a culture that suspects each and every one of our neighbors or one that builds strongholds to protect ourselves, the terrorism will have succeeded in harming our way of life more completely than it could by destroying all the buildings in New York City.
To avoid this fate, the culture and its people need to understand terrorism. We need to have a definitive grasp on the nature of terrorism. This extends, but is not limited to, understanding what tactics are used and what are the motivations for those tactics. In this way, a culture can avoid confusing the issue in public discourse, and it can avoid locking people away for imagined threats. We have begun our fight against terrorism blindly, and we need to clarify what we are fighting so that we can fight effectively.
This paper will analyze current definitions, focusing on the official definitions of American federal agencies, and some of the definitions used by our allies in the war on terror. This paper will also examine a few of the most current and popular academic definitions. One factor in defining terrorism is defining what terrorism is not, so this paper will explain the difference between tactics used by guerrillas and tactics used by terrorist. This paper will discuss the nature of state terrorism and how that differs from state supported terrorism. This paper will also examine the old adage of “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter". These examples will be used to find a final, complete, definition, followed by an attempt to provide a classification structure for the different terrorist groups in the world, along with some general characteristics of groups in each category.

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