Definition of 'terrorism'

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Paul Cassell looks at a definition of 'terrorism' that I find problematic. What's central to terrorism, on this account, is causing harm to innocent civilians. That seems pretty far off to me.

First, it can't be just harm. It has to include threatened harm. Someone who threatens to blow up the Empire State Building if you don't fork over $1 billion is clearly engaging in terrorism, even if they never blow it up. Second, it can't be restricted just to harm to civilians. It's terrorism if you plant a bomb in the office of a high-ranking military officer. Third, terrorism doesn't always threaten harm, at least not directly. Eco-terrorism can include things like putting spikes on a road foresters need to use to cut down trees. No one might be directly harmed by this, and yet it's clearly a kind of terrorism.

What makes it terrorism is that the perpetrators intend to cause them to stop using the road by destroying their tires every time they do. Eco-terrorists have been known to cause far more property damage than that without causing direct harm, including blowing up people's houses because they work for a polluting company, choosing to do it when they're not home. That's even more clearly terrorism, and yet it's not about direct harm to civilians. I suppose if you have a sufficiently broad understanding of what counts as harm, then these might not be covered, but it's not intuitively the best way to get at what terrorism is. There are clear cases with no harm anyway, e.g. kidnapping in order to get some money or to get some political goal achieved when there's no intention of harming anyone, although there might be an implied threat of harm.

Haig Khatchadourian's The Morality of Terrorism opens with a very nice discussion of how to define 'terrorism'. He distinguishes between predatory, retaliatory, political, and moral/religious terrorism in terms of the motives, but all have one thing in common: there are immediate victims and a separate real target. There are lots of uses of coercion or force that aren't terrorism. What makes it terrorism is that the intended effect on the primary target is accomplished indirectly by doing something to an immediate victim who isn't the primary target. You do or threaten something to loved ones, civilians, a structure, and so on in order to get someone else to do something. That seems to me to be exactly what's definitive of terrorism.

The relevant section is also reprinted in the first two editions of James E. White's Contemporary Moral Problems: War and Terrorism. (I'm not sure why he removed it from the third edition, but what it does include doesn't strike me as being quite as insightful on this question.)


Gut reaction: you say, "Eco-terrorism can include things like putting spikes on a road foresters need to use to cut down trees. No one might be directly harmed by this, and yet it's clearly a kind of terrorism." Gut reaction: It's not terrorism at all. Just because it's called Eco-Terrorism, that doesn't make it terrorism. Regarding the term, I think that it was a spin term coined by a logging company or something like that. Regardless, it seems clear to me that "Eco-Terrorism" is not Terrorism.

I generally agree with you. But I'm not so sure about this:

Eco-terrorism can include things like putting spikes on a road foresters need to use to cut down trees. No one might be directly harmed by this, and yet it's clearly a kind of terrorism.

I don't think I would always call that terrorism. It's sabotage, yes, and incredibly annoying, but it wouldn't be terrifying unless accompanied by threats of worse to come (e.g., an implied threat that the trees might be spiked, too). Blowing up an empty house, on the other hand, would be inherently terrifying, both because of what it suggests about one's personal safety and because homes have a lot more meaning to us than tires do.

On eco-terrorism, my point is that the goal doesn't seem to be what makes it terrorism. Even if the goal is noble, it can still be terrorism. I'd also want to insist that something's being terrorism doesn't itself mean that it's wrong (although I would say that it's prima facie wrong).

Maybe I'll concede on spiking roads, but I do think such actions can be used as terrorism if the threat of further and more serious action lies behind it.

The main point is that causing fear in others in order to achieve a certain result should count as terrorism. Threatening of people's property should just as easily count as terrorism as threatening harm to them bodily. If someone said they'd blow up a factory if the government didn't raise its mercury standards, that strikes me as a clear case of terrorism. So eco-terrorism can be terrorism, even if the term sometimes gets applied in cases that aren't really terrorism. But isn't that true of terrorism in general? The people who went around blowing up houses in Long Island in the early 90s in order to send an environmentalist message were clearly terrorists (even if they were pretty dumb terrorists).

I think your problem is that you are working on a very narrow definition of "harm", apparently referring only to physical harm to someone's body. But I would use a broader definition of "harm", to include the psychological harm caused by kidnapping, and the damage to property and financial interests in your eco-terrorism examples. In fact the post you linked to explicitly includes psychological harm in the definition.

Yes, I think the harm component covers a lot more if it's clear that it's a broader conception of harm. I'm not sure what I have in mind is limited to bodily and psychological harm, though. You may not cause bodily or psychological harm and yet still cause harm in a broader sense. I don't think it would do any bodily or psychological harm (none sufficient to worry about, anyway) if I threatened to blow up Alcatraz. But it seems like terrorism.

Also, psychological harm may go too far. There are clear cases of psychological harm to innocents that doesn't constitute terrorism (just as there are cases of bodily harm). Is it terrorism if I out someone as having gotten 100 on an IQ test while holding high office and being seen as smart? The person didn't do anything wrong, but it would be embarrassing and could cause psychological harm to an innocent. Is that terrorism, or is it just blackmail? I don't see any threat of fear, which is what terrorism is about. That was my main point.

So I'd prefer not to focus on the harm component at all and rather emphasize the fact that terrorism involves doing or threatening to do something to someone in order to achieve some indirect aim (e.g. the person giving you money, the government changing a policy, the group you're militarily opposing backing down).

So, we agree, some but not all instances of eco-terrorism are terrorism. Spikes on the road: Not terrorism. Threatening to burn down the Boreal forest if logging efforts aren't stopped (and there being a reasonable likelihood of the threatener being able to carry out the threat): Terrorism.

I think that the spikes-on-the-road case is a little misleading because I guess if the tires are VERY VERY important to the logging company (so important that they are terrified by the threat and that the threatener knows this), then it might count as terrorism. However, having worked in the periphery of the logging industry, I can assure you that no logging company exec would be worried by a threat like this. Very annoyed maybe, but would that make them stop harvesting? Definitely not.

I think that an essential feature of terrorism is the intent to evoke terror (that is a NECESSARY condition). I agree with you that harm or causing terror is definitely not the goal of terrorism. If the goal of some actor is to cause harm or general terror without some other objective, then I think it is not terrorism. I'd call that, a lunatic on the loose.

Cassell seems totally off with his account of what terrorism is and I don't really think it is worth taking seriously. So many counterexamples abound.

There is an interesting paper by Simon Keller "On What is the War on Terror" ( in which he argues that there are cases where terrorism IS the best line of action and hence something that we want. The paper goes on to argue that we only should have wars on xs (where xs are not peoples or nations, but things) just in case we would want to eliminate those things. Since we don't want to eliminate terrorism (given that it's sometimes the most prudent action), we shouldn't have a war on terrorism. There are lots of interesting points along the way, but that's the gist.

I was avoiding the moral questions about terrorism. I do think it can be morally justified in rare circumstances. I don't think dropping the A-bomb on Japan to end WWII was morally justified, but a lot of people did, and that was about as clear a case of government-caused terrorism as there could be. There might be similar cases that I would think are ok.

I think it's clear that the War on Terror isn't really a war on terrorism, though. It's a war on Islamicism, which often manifests itself through terrorism but also often takes other forms of violence. So I'm not sure Keller's point really applies to what the War on Terror actually is.

Keller's paper was written back around the time that this "war on terror" stuff all started. There really were people, perhaps there still are, who thought that what the US really is fighting is terrorism (similar to the war on—illegal narcotic—Drugs).

On a side note, do you think that something will count as terrorism if you kill everyone? The A-bombs dropped on Japan didn't quite do that, but we can imagine a situation in which the US nuked everyone except themselves. That, seems to me to not be terrorism, even in the case where it was intended to evoke terror, but the number of bombs dropped was accidentally multiplied (and so catastrophe occurred). (I realize that this goes against my account of terrorism above, I'm just pushing for an intuition check.)

If the U.S. wanted to carry out a terrorist act that involved scaring a lot of people around the world but actually wiped out everyone but the U.S., then I think it would be an act of attempted terrorism. So I guess you're suggesting that 'terrorism' is a success term. It's not really terrorism if it isn't carried out effectively enough to meet the necessary condition of at least potentially scaring the people the indirect act was supposed to scare.

Very nice. That is a good definition. Very percise and it really gets to the true heart of the matter.

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