Define "terrorist".

First, I want to make it clear that I am not Israel-bashing here. Part of my family and half my friends are Jewish, and I wish Israel and other countries in the middle east could work things out.

But many newspapers in Canada and Europe (but not most American media, as far as I know) refuse to use the word “terrorist” because it is a hypocrital value judgement. They use the words “insurgent” , “combatant” and fighters". There is a bitter debate going on in the media.

American minutemen in the revolution were farmers who could appear in a minute, fire from hiding at British troops, and then quickly go back to their fields as if nothing had happened. Remind you of the Viet Cong “terrorists”?

The question is, how do you define “terrorism”?

There is a joke that a cult is a religion that is not pwerful enough to have political clout.

Is terrorism what you do when your enemy has a well-financed military and you do not?

Here is a working definition I heard: “Torrorism is the use of violence against innocent civilians and their property in order the effect a desired social and political change in a state perceived as an enemy.”

When the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were well aware that the Japanese were looking to negotiate peace. The bombings used the deaths of half a million innocent civilians to effect the following change. The Japanese dropped all demands for negotiations and accepted complete surrender.

What was the purpose of firebombing Desden, in MARCH of 1945, when Germany surrendered a couple of months later? Some 250 thousand Germans were roasted alive in an attempt to effect a desired social and political change in a state perceived as an enemy. In fact it did not have an iota of effect on the Nazi leadership.

September 11 was clearly a case of the use of violence against innocent civilians and their property in order the effect a desired social and political change in a state perceived as an enemy.

All of the nuclear powers have missiles in silos whose only purpose onceactivired is to kill innocent civilians in anothger couintry in the hundreds of millions. Is this “terrorism”?

Rockets and sucide bombs against Israel, are clearly terrorism under the above definition. But Israel claims it goes after military targets. That being the case, why is the number of Palestinian civilians killed by the Israelis many times greater than the number of Jewish civilians killed by the Palestinian “terrorists”? Are Israelis the gang that can’t shoot straight? I don’t think so. Do they go after mi;litary targets but lob a few into heavily populated areas for revenge? Or to effect changs in social attitudes of Palestinians?

Does anyone have a definition of “terrorism” that they would like to propose and try out.

The general understanding, at least until recently, was that a terrorist was someone who attacked civilians, or civilian targets, in support of some political cause, outside of the normally understood bounds of the practice of warfare.

I have never - again, unti recently - heard of attacking military targets being an act of “terrorism,” especially in what everyone knows is a war zone. Some things may be of questionably LEGALITY, like attacking civilian structures with aerial bombardment or attacking military targets when you’re not dressed as a soldier, but I’ve never before heard of a definition of “terrorism” that incorporated any violation of the laws of war. Terrorism, from what I can remember, always meant civilians attacking other civilians.

I had also received the impression that terrorism, by definition, could not be performed by an actual government or any of its major subdivisions (like the Sudan’s janjaweed). Genocide could, atrocities could, and a government could mimic the actions of a terrorist group, but not plain old terrorism.

** Define “terrorist”**


Any one, or group of people, found to be engaging in, planning, or in any way supporting any violence that is not explicity approved by the leaders of the G8.

The Israelis are indeed terrorising Lebanon, but are not by definition terrorists, since Israel is a soverign nation.

ps Don’t interchange the words Israeli and jewish. Not all Israelis are jewish, just like not all Americans are christian.

Which shows the irrelevancy of the term, if you buy that definition. That’s another way of saying “Terrorist is what the big army calls the little army.” That’s the old idea that “terror from above” is OK, while terror from below isn’t.

Don’t kid yourself. The dividing line is simple. Israel acts to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible while accepting that such casualties are inevitable when their enemy hids amongst the civilian population. They are trying to root out the people using violence against them at the least possible cost to innocents. Terrorists seek to maximize civilian casualties in order to intimidate the targeted society. Innocents die in both cases, but if you can’t see that they are worlds apart, then you are a fool.

And your evidence that Israel is even slightly trying to minimize casualties, instead of maximize them for terror purposes ?

Terrorist: *One who utilizes the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve political objectives, while disguised as a civilian non-combatant. The use of a civilian disguise while on operations exempts the perpetrator from protection under the Geneva Conventions, and consequently if captured they are liable for prosecution as common criminals. *

I got that from here and it seems to cover terrorist pretty well. The guys who have flown airplanes into buildings, strapped bombs to themselves and blown up busses, planted car bombs and kidnapped Israeli military personal are not running around in uniform or part of an acknowledged army* following orders.

A note about Israel and the death of non-combatants. As far as I know Israel has not specifically targeted civilians while the terrorist attacking Israel have, in the past, specifically targeted civilians. The targets the Israelis picked have had civilians around but they are not the target. Regretablly, at this time collateral damage is going to happen.

*They might be part of the official military. If that is so and they were acting under orders then the actions go from an act of terrorism to an act of war.

It so isn’t.

Bear in mind, though, that the “non-terrorist” state actor in that particular SNAFU always scores way more civilian deaths than those seeking to maximise them. At what point does collateral damage become criminal negligence?

That isn’t the definition of terrorism given so far. Are you redefining it? If so, please do so fully. Also, are you dropping the “property” bit?

By your definition so far, if Al Qaeda destroys Washington to kill Bush, that’s OK, since those killed weren’t targeted? Think it needs some work.

So, anyone who fights in a civilian uprising against a tyrant is a terrorist ? The weak side can’t run around in uniforms, because they’d all be killed. Besides, where would they get them ? This definition of terrorism boils down to “You’re a terrorist if you’re weak, you’re not a terrorist if you’re strong !” If a resistance fight shoots a soldier from behind, he’s not a terrorist, no matter what he’s wearing. It’s targeting civilians to spread fear that’s terrorism, no matter who does it, Osama Bin Laden or the Allies bombing the refugees in Dresden.

I think the postings in this thread amply issustrate the problem with using the word “terrorist”. It is interesting to note that when the Asper family in Canada bought up a great many media in this country, they insisted that their journalists start using the term again, in newspapers that had abandoned it as a question-begging propaganda term. (the fact that the Aspers are Jewish is neither here nor there. Their opinions are strongly pro-Israeli, and there is nothing wrong with that). But a lot of journalists simply stood their ground and refused.

What about all the people out of uniform in the French, Polish, Norwegian and even German anti-Nazi resistance movements during the war? I remember a former French resistance fighter who told me that when they captured a German soldier, their favourite way of settling his hash was to tie him on a seat that had a hole in the seat below which were ravenous rats who went at his genitals. They did this because the Gestapo did the same to their partisans when they were caught. But what if the captured German soldier was an 18-year-old kid who was drafter into the German army and whose family, like 60 per cent of Germans, had voted anti-Nazi in the last free election? Ho do you feel about his cries of angusih as the rats knaw through his genitals?

What about commandos, those romantic heros of the Allied cause who were dropped into occupied countries OUT OF UNIFORM to perform acts of murder and sabotage?

What about the German Generals who set off the bomb to blow up Hitler in 1944? Were they terrorists?

The “night and fog” decree by Hitler in which anyone suspected of resistance was just made to disappear had its effect in terrorizing the population in occupied territories.

The brave Jewish fighters in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1944 were without uniforms and resorted to fire-and-run tactics against the powerful Wermacht because that is how you do it when you are a weak force of rebels against a vastly superior force.

Israelis go mainly after military objectives because they are more effective targets and because they have the world’s sixth-largest military machine (according to Jane’s, but I may be wrong), most of it paid for by the US. I am perfectly willing to believe that civilian deaths are not their objective. BVut everyone admits that the Israeli military have killed several times more Palestinian civilians than vice-versa.

I seriously believe that the Israeli Defence Force has reverence for human life as one of its values, as stated on its web site. I believe this because Israel is still the most democratic, liberal, tolerant and humane state in the Middle East.

But there is also a decision of the Israeli courts that makes the use of “necessary force” (come on, it’s torture!) against prisoners legal.

No doubt, the Palestinians would prefer to go after the Israeli military rather than civilians if they had the military hardware to face the Israeli Defence Force man-to-man. If the US bought the Palestinians a military force equal to that of Israel and if the Palestinian forces began attacking military targets with only unintentional killing of nearby Jewish civilians, would we cease to call them terrorists?

The fact is that all conflict is brutal and immoral. When war starts, we mainly lay aside our humanity. The idea is to find a way to end conflict. But while it is going on, are you seriously going to use terms lilke “terrorist” to demonize one side in the media?

IMHO we should just drop the word ‘terrorist’ as it is not an agreed neutral word. Because of that, in any discourse about what is going on, the debate becomes about what the word means rather than what is actually happening. Hence the reluctance of European media to use the word glibly.

Let’s look at the word ‘terrorize’. Almost all modern military action is to do with terrorizing a group of people- the enemy, and often enemy civilians. Historically there may have been military conflicts where there was an understood code for carrying out warfare that stopped short of terrorizing the enemy as a whole, and civilians in particular. That is history in every sense of the word. From the Boer War, and probably before that, all war has involved the conscious use of terror tactics by one side against the civilian population of the other. Weasel words such as ‘collateral damage’ do not excuse, they merely explain. It is still the use of terror, and you can bet that the military planners include the benefits of terror in such operations, even when calling it collateral damage. The choice of the name ‘Shock and Awe’ was not accidental.

The essential fact is ‘what is actually going on’, and how are these facts interpreted by each side in the ‘debate’.

In both cases lethal force is being used against the civilian population of the opponent. Organized military forces like to claim that there is such a thing as ‘collateral damage’ which excludes resonsibility for killing civilians. Insurgent groups like to claim that because the opponent is too well defended that attacks on the civilian population are justified as the minimal response to achieve their goals. IMHO both claims are extremely doubtful when looked at from a Moral philosophy point of view. The theory may be good in both cases, but the way in which the violence is carried out may not exactly be covered by the supposed get out clauses. I would suggest that the virtual destruction of Fallujah was just too much to be called collateral damage, and that 9/11 was too much to be called minimal response. If the US had avoided the scorched earth policy in Fallujah and Al Qaeda had kept to bombing embassies and warships, then there were probably excuses, but at some point such excuses obviously fail.

Each side will seek to reinterpret these actions and to demonize them by using words such as genocide or terrorism. What is needed is a calm analysis of what is actually happening in the use of violence to achieve desired goals. As the first casualty of warfare is the truth, this is extremely difficult to do.

The use of terms such as insurgents and fighters as true descriptions of what is going on with the people attacking the West, and invaders and occupying forces for the Western forces in Iraq.
Similar differences can be shown between US/Israeli descriptions of Israeli occupation of the West Bank in terms of security and defensive needs, and that of the European Press which is more likely to describe this as occupation or territorial acquisition.

I prefer the factual description that avoids unneccesary value judgements in the terminology used.

I had been thinking about starting a thread like this myself. Personally, I think anyone who says there’s a simple definition of “terrorist” is greatly oversimplifying the issue.

Consider the following possible definitions:

“A group other than a sovereign nation who attacks a sovereign nation.” This definition fails because often the whole crux of the conflict is the debate over sovereignty. So with this definition, who the terrorists are is reduced to a matter of opinion. Also, there have been many cases where sovereign nations are accused of “terrorist acts” – which this definition excludes.

“Someone who attacks civillian targets.” This definition fails because there isn’t always a clear dividing line between civilian targets and military targets. Often, civilian targets are of strategic military importance. If military supply planes are landing and taking off from a civilian airport, is this a military target or a civilian target? What if one side says the airport is being used by the military, and the other side denies it? What if the attackers aren’t one hundred percent sure it’s being used by the military, but suspect it might be (or fear that it’s going to be)?

“Someone who attacks civilian targets for non-strategic reasons.” By strategic reasons, I mean more than simply making your enemies give in to your demands. I think if you blow up a clearly civilian site (like a school or a shopping mall) in order to inspire fear or force your enemy to accept your demands, than that is pretty clearly terorrism. But again, there are many sites that could be considered civilian targets or military targets depending on your point of view. Also, who’s to say whether you’re being honest about your reason for attacking that target? Did Israel bomb the Beirut airport to prevent it from being used by Hezbollah, or to put pressure on the Lebannese government to disarm Hezbollah? Or a little of each?

Also, what about the attack against the U.S.S. Cole? That was a military target, but is still generally considered a terrorist attack. So clearly, definitions that only involve “civilian targets” are in some ways not broad enough.

“Someone who attacks a sovereign nation for reasons other than self-defense.” But what’s “self-defense”? Does this only include defending yourself after they attack you? What if you think they’re going to attack you soon? What if you think they might be building weapons that would eventually allow them to attack you? How certain do you have to be for your attack to be “self-defense” as opposed to “terrorism”? (Again, this also hinges on who the “sovereign nation” is, which is often the very essence of the dispute.)

Also, there’s the question of who “they” is. If Israel holds the Lebannese government responsible for the actions of Hezbollah, but Lebannon says “Hey, we can’t control Hezbollah”, then is an Israeli strike against Lebannon a justified retaliation for the actions of Hezbollah, or not?

It seems to me that there are a lot of shades of gray when it comes to terrorism. Nevertheless, there are some things that are clearly terrorism, e.g., blowing up a non-government office building, or a shopping mall, or a school, or a hotel, or a place of worship. (But what if you claim there were enemy soldiers hiding in the basement?)

Minmizing casualties “as much as possible” is a matter of opinion, because it hinges on whether each individual bombing was “necessary” to defeat your enemies. If you ask the Israeli government whether the bombing of the Beirut airport was “necessary”, they’d say yes. I doubt the government of Lebannon would agree.

I’m not saying this makes the Israelis terrorists. I’m just saying the dividing line between what is or isn’t terrorism is a lot fuzzier than you’re making it out to be.

Yes, some things are clearly on one side of that line or the other. But even some of the quintessential examples of terrorism (U.S.S. Cole bombing, 9-11 attack againt the Pentagon) were against military targets. It’s not just about “maximizing civilian casualties.”

And if the definition depends on whether the attack was “necessary” or whether it served “strategic military purposes”, then the divinding line is nothing but a matter of opinion.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as terrorism. I can’t tell you exactly how much hair someone has to lose to be “bald”, but “baldness” obviously exists. Similarly, terrorism is real – just vaguely defined.

If Israel wanted to maximize casualties, they would have nuked Beirut.

Doing that would screw them over internationally, otherwise I expect they would.

Good point. It would be a shame if Israel lost the high standing it has with most of the world outside the U.S. :rolleyes:

tim314, very good points. I was responding to Der Trihs, however, so naturally I was trying to keep it as simple as possible.

Um, no…not really. Viet Cong who were fighting against the US and South Vietnamese government were insurgents or rebels. Viet Cong who were terrorizing civilians (and this happened quite a bit) or deliberately targetting civilian populations were terrorists.

Minutemen militia units (btw, they didn’t always fight in the hit and run manner you describe…in fact, I’d say they mostly didn’t fight that way as lone fighters picking up a gun to take a pot shot at the Brits then run back to the farm) attacking the British were insurgents or rebels. Any Americans who deliberately targetted civilians were terrorists. The Brits who targetted civilians (who were in rebellion) terrorized the population but weren’t terrorists.

Easy, no?

I’d say the definition would be something like: Any irregular group who takes it upon themselves to deliberately target civilians to install terror in a population. By this definitely then ObL and AQ are terrorists. I suppose rogue states that deliberately target civilians with the intent to do maximum damage could also be labled ‘terrorist’. I think we can safely exclude Israel from this list. Closest thing I can think of today would be perhaps North Korea (terrorization through starvation) or perhaps the old Iraqi regime.

Leaving aside your BS statement about Japan negotiating in good faith for peace while those evil and mean American’s just wanted to kill (which kind of glosses over a hell of a lot of detail), you are attempting to apply the standards of today to a time when different standards applied. TODAY, it would be unacceptable for a nation state to deliberately target civilians as all sides did in that war. At the time though, civilians were targetted deliberately because they were part of the war machine of the enemy and the standard of total war was in effect. We will (hopefully) NEVER have to see total war again, and so nation states attempt (to the best of their abilities) to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible. When a nation state does not do this, then I think its safe to lable that nation state a ‘terrorist’ state.

USING them deliberately against civilian populations unprovoked (today) would be ‘terrorism’. Simply having them? Why would this be ‘terrorism’? By that definition simply having a standing military would be ‘terrorism’, as a power like the US could do as much damage to a nation with its conventionly military (if it chose to) as with Nukes.

Do you have some indication that Israel deliberately targets civilians? Remember that Israel is attempting to fight basically insurgents who are hiding IN a civilian population…so some civilian casualties are inevitable. This isn’t terrorism (IMHO), its simply a fact of fighting irregular troops in that situation and the nature and capabilities of Israel’s military. I’d say a good indication is that if Israel WANTED to deliberately target civilians (say they knew that some Hama terrorists were somewhere within a few city blocks) they could simply indiscriminately carpet bomb them. THAT would be a hell of a lot of casualties.

BTW, do you have a cite that more Palestinian ‘civilians’ are killed than Israeli citizens? I find this hard to believe, though I suppose it could be true.

As for your ‘Are Israelis the gang that can’t shoot straight?’ you obviously don’t know what the hell you are talking about. But lets turn it around for a second. How would YOU fight an enemy who blends in and uses civilians as cover? Would you simply not fight and just take whatever they do to you? Would you use magic weapons that always hit and kill only who you intended them to hit and kill and never fuck up or miss?

Simple. What are the total Palestinian casualties so far since this latest flare up? A few dozen? A hundred? :dubious: If the Israeli’s weren’t trying to minimize casualties it would be thousands. Think about what a few aircraft loaded with 2000 lb bombs dropped onto a few city blocks where, say, a Hama’s terrorist was THOUGHT to be…think about what that would do and what the casualties would be then. Or how about a few batteries of artillary fireing indiscriminately into those same city blocks for a few hours. And it would be so easy…just load up the planes or wheel up the artillary. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case, no?


What he said.

The question of whether a group is a country or not is irrelevant, IMHO. Otherwise, we’d be branding George Washington as a terrorist.

Similarly, whether there are civilian casualties isn’t a fair measure either. There are plenty of civilian casualties in any war or military activity. The question, to me, is whether civilian casualties are the primary target, or are just an unwanted and unhappy accident.

I’ve found that a fairly simple way to distinguish terrorists from insurgents/guerillas/freedom-fighers is to look at their political objective and then to look at their military actions, and ask how closely related the two are. It obviously leaves a lot of grey and fuzzy areas, but it can distinguish lots of situations. Easiest is to demonstrate by examples (all of them real):

Example 1:
Objective: to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia.
Action: Using US planes to destroy the World Trade Center
This one is terrorism, because the victims (the targets) are US civilians. The purpose of the military exericse is just to kill people (not just Americans, anyone who happened to be on the planes or in the WTC.)

Example 2:
Objective: to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia.
Action: Blowing up a US naval vessel in a Saudi port.
This one is legitimate guerrilla warfare; the target of the action is the US military.

Example 3:
Objective: to have Israeli forces move out of the West Bank
Action: Kidnapping a Greek cruise ship and murdering a disabled Jewish-American passenger.
This one is terrorism, because there’s no connection at all between the target of the action and the objective.

Example 4:
Objective: to have Israeli forces move out of the West Bank
Action: Suicide bombers in Jerusalem restaurants
This one is possibly arguable, but the victims of the action are not just Israelis, but anyone who happens to be in the restaurant at the time. And, of course, the people in the restaurant have nothing to do with making policy or with the military. So there’s a disconnect between the action and the objective.

Example 5:
Objective: Objective: to have Israeli forces move out of the West Bank
Action: Suicide bombers at Israeli military checkpoints
This one comes out as “legitimate” freedom-fighting. The actions are tied to the objective.

Example 6:
Objective: Secure the release of hostages taken by Hezbollah
Action: Blockade the area, strike at military and transportation targets
This seems to me to be legitimate activity; there’s a clear connection between the political objective and the military actions.

Example 7 (generic)
Objective: Cause a government to make concessions
Actions: Threats, intimidations, blackmail and violence directed at random citizens
This one is terrorism. The whole point is to cause enough fear among the populations that the government caves in. Or, in the Gaza case, to kidnap one Israeli soldier and to ask, in return, for the release of 400 (I forget the number) jailed criminals (or political prisoners, as you choose.) The whole point behind this is that Israel values each individual life; the Palestinians don’t, they think that 1 Israeli is worth 400 Palestinians. That’s blackmail.

So, my method isn’t perfect, but it does seem to clarify (for me) most situations.