Outline and defend a definition of terrorism. In doing so indicate whether terrorism is ever morally defensible and explain why your definition is superior to rival views.

Since September 11th 2001, the international community has been consumed by discourses surrounding terrorism and defence. The UN currently has no clear definition of terrorism and much of the language surrounding terrorism in international conventions seems to imply that it is an act which can only be committed by the opponents of governments (Held 2003:62). Whilst the academic community seems to have consensus that states can indeed engage in terrorism, the definitions brought up move between a spectrum of being incredibly inclusive, to those which are explicitly restrictive in what can be considered terrorism. Further most of the language surrounding terrorism in the international community features solid moral objections to the practice, holding it as an inherently immoral act. The academic community is divided to a greater degree, with some holding that it is always wrong, and others with views that in some cases, acts of terrorism could be more justifiable than war.

In this paper I will argue for the following definition of terrorism:
Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence, or threat of violence against a party with the aim of intimidating them or others into a course of action they otherwise would not take.

This definition differs from other definitions of terrorism, such as that of Igor Primoratz in one main way; it excludes notions of immunity or innocence from its victims. The following are its important components:

  1. It views terrorism as a tool used by parties against other parties with the aim of intimidation in order to coerce them.
  2. It effectively includes both governments and grassroots organisations as parties capable of committing an act of terrorism.
  3. It opens acts of terrorism to greater moral investigation meaning that in some cases, terrorism could be morally justifiable, or in the very least, some acts of terrorism may be more justifiable than others.
  4. It preserves the connection of “terrorism” with “terror” and “terrorising”.

The central part of this definition is that an act of terrorism is one with the intent of using terror or intimidation to coerce another party. Unlike Primoratz’ model of terrorism there need not be two targets. In a hypothetical situation, where one clandestine body of a military delivers a thread to another military such as:

“We have stealth submarines with a lock on your ten aircraft carriers. If you do not release our captured POW’s 30 minutes we will destroy one carrier every hour until you do.”

Whilst this is technically an act of war, in a very real sense it is still a form of terrorism. In this instance, one party is using violence or the threat of violence with the aim of intimidating/coercing them into a course of action they would not take. Whilst the victims of such a demand/attack are not civilian and it does not intuitively feel like a form of terrorism according to our understanding given to us by the international community, the only differences between this and other instances is an arbitrary distinction of the parties involved. Should a grassroots movement threaten:

“We have bombs placed on ten metropolitan busses. If you do not release prisoners XYZ in 30 minutes, we will blow one bus up every 10 minutes until you do.”

            The act is the same, merely the parties are different. There is still one party, using violence or the threat of violence to intimidate and coerce another party into a course of action they would not take. The distinction of which parties can conduct terrorism and which parties must be the victims of terrorism is arbitrary criteria. What is central and important, is that the intent of causing terror to manipulate is the central and driving motivator for both actions.
It simply isn’t practical or necessary to add on distinctions of who can and cannot be a victim of the act. Terrorism is a tool which uses intimidation and fear to coerce others, it matters not who the victim is, the act and intent and effect are the same.
This purely mental quality is important. Distinctions of this nature are important in moral matters because they define the consequences of an action in moral terms. It is not murder to accidentally kill a man, because the intent was not to kill, merely a man’s death was an accident or product of negligence, hence it is called manslaughter. Likewise it is not murder to kill in a war, because when combatants enter wars they lose their immunity. As such the intent to use the fear and terror of violence to coerce another party is terrorism; the intent is the defining factor. It is why political assassination is different from terrorism. Whilst the assassination of a political leader or figurehead may inspire terror amongst a government or people it is rarely the primary intended effect. Should Al Qaeda tomorrow assassinate François Hollande, the current French President, unless the act was done to terrorise the French, it would not be terrorism. More likely the assassination would be done in a bid to stop the French military intervention in Mali, or as retribution for their involvement in Mali/Afghanistan.

The most important aspect of this definition of terrorism is that it does not exclude states from its definition. States can be just as culpable of acts of terrorism as their less powerful opponents. Using my definition the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of terrorism. Putting aside whether such an attack was necessary or justified, an analysis of the situation quickly shows the underlying thinking of the parties involved:
The allies wanted a quick and absolute surrender from the Japanese forces. A long and drawn out war in the pacific would have resulted in many casualties from both sides, including more individuals subjected to the cruelty of the Japanese in POW camps. As such the allies eventually agreed to drop nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to display their military might and beat the Japanese into submission with one terrible attack. The attacks on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in some of the most graphic depictions of international violence in modern times. The attacks were so terrible, that the Japanese military and state immediately surrendered to the allied forces.
In this instance one party, the allied forces, used the violence of their terrible weapons upon the Japanese citizenry in order to coerce other party, Japan’s rulers, to surrender. This example clearly fits under my definition of terrorism.

Some may find distressing how inclusive my definition of terrorism is, it certainly takes away the inherent moral repugnance of the act, you could even claim that the definition makes terrorism so watered down, that in many instances it becomes irrelevant or quaint to even classify some acts as terrorism because of how relatively benign they may be. The moral force of claiming an act is terrorism is gone. Certainly assassinations, kidnappings, legitimate/illegitimate acts of war, and even domestic actions could all be considered acts of terrorism if done with the intent to terrorise a party. It is my intent to have such an open definition. Terrorism is morally neutral. Certainly there have been abhorrent acts of terrorism for which there is no convincing moral justification, however equally there have been just as many, and in fact far more deadly/immoral acts of war, legitimate or illegitimate in nature. My point with such a definition is to take away the overarching negative stigma of the act. Terrorism much like the asylum seeker debate in Australia has been built up to be an issue of epic importance, used to justify laws which are illegal on an international level and immoral on an ethical level. It is a political hot potato that politicians use to instil fear into citizens so as to pass progressively more and more invasive laws in the name of defence.
The “War on Terror” is the 21st century equivalent to the Cold War. It is the new age equivalent of the Red Scare, a faceless bogeyman out to undermine the Western world. Terrorism has been used as the founding reason to enact laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Bill, 2004. Such laws give law enforcement and government institutions far reaching powers which in many cases may deny or infringe upon the human rights of individuals.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is an independent statutory organisation which leads the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia, reporting to parliament through the Attorney-General. The AHRC its self has raised concerns over the extent of power that such anti-terrorism laws have considering Australia does not have a charter of human rights (2013:2.1).

In 2004, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2004 (Cth) introduced special powers for the Australian Federal Police (‘AFP’) to question terrorism suspects without charge into Part 1C, Division 2 of Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) (‘the Crimes Act’). These powers mean that upon arrest for a terrorism offence a person can be detained without charge for the purpose of investigating whether the person committed the terrorism offence for which he or she was arrested and/or another terrorism offence that an investigating official reasonably suspects the person committed” (Australian Human Rights Commission 2013:4.1)

What the above powers show is that the AFP have the legal power to violate Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. Other questionable measures include reversal for the onus of proof for granting bail in terrorism matters (2013:4.2) and police powers to stop, search and seize in terrorist investigations (2013:4.3).
Such powers are in the interests of states as their greater legitimacy to detain suspects and infringe upon their privacy serves their interests as a power within society. By framing these laws in the light of terrorism, in the pursuit of eliminating or alleviating the concerns of violence for everyday people, citizens consent to laws which infringe upon their rights and freedoms as individuals. The irony of it all is, that governments terrorise their citizens with the phantom menace of terrorism in order to pass laws which serve their interests with as little resistance as possible.

International efforts to define terrorism as an inherently immoral act against innocent civilians only committable by non-state actors are efforts to define this phantom menace as something other than governments themselves. By using my definition of terrorism we eliminate the arbitrary distinction of what it is to commit an act of terrorism and who a terrorist can be. This eliminates its moral repugnance of the act and through that the fear factor it has as well as the moral legitimacy of measures taken to combat terrorism. Terrorism is not so large an issue that it requires neither the full attention of the international community nor the fear of its peoples when compared to the impacts of climate change and poverty. When the US Government spends a reported 3.3 trillion dollars (New York Times, September 8 2011) on a war against what is essentially a military tactic that it can claim any non-state opponent to have used, when the cost to eliminate extreme poverty by the UN in 1997 was $40 billion a year over 10 years, there is a stark problem with the priorities and interests of states.
The strength of my definition of terrorism “Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence, or threat of violence against a party with the aim of intimidating them or other people into a course of action they otherwise would not take” is that citizens can see terrorism for what it is, a tool or military target, which like all military tools/targets can be used by both non-state and state based actors, and can be used for morally defensible or indefensible ends. Terrorism does not need to be the menace upon society that it is built up to be.


Australian Government, Anti-terrorism Bill 2004, C2004B01607, viewed 13/05/2013

Australian Human Rights Commission, A Human Rights Guide to Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Laws, viewed 13/05/2013 http://www.humanrights.gov.au/human-rights-guide-australias-counter-terrorism-laws

David E. Sanger, “The Price of Lost Chances” New York Times, September 8th 2011

Igor Primoratz, “What is Terrorism and War,” The Journal of Applied Philosophy 7 (1990), pp. 129-38.

Jonathon Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (London: Plimco, 2001), pp. 89-112.

United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, viewed 13/05/2013

United Nations Department of Public Information – DPI/1933 November 1997, viewed 13/05/2013

Virginia Held, “Terrorism and War,” The Journal of Ethics 8 (2004), pp. 59-75.


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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