Terrorism: America Defines Its Targets


On September 11, 2001, the United States declared a global war against terrorism. Since then, we have been told ad nauseum that terrorism is the great scourge of our time, and terrorists are evil incarnate. In the twenty-first century, the United States will wage war against a new ‘totalitarianism’ of the Islamists, a repeat of the war it waged against earlier incarnations of this creed ­ communism and fascism. The civilized world, led by the US, will win this war, as it won the two previous ones, but it will be a long war, perhaps even a costly one.

Since terrorism is now the grand metaphor for framing global, regional and sub-national conflicts, it is appropriate that we try to understand the nature of this war against ‘terrorism’ by examining how the United States defines this beast. Let us milk the official US definitions for whatever insights they will yield. It is just possible that we might learn a few things we will never learn from official US communiqués about this war: why the US wages this war and who are the enemies.

Consider the official definitions of terrorism advanced by the three US agencies that have the responsibility for fighting it: [1]

FBI. "The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

Department of Defense (DoD). "The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies as to the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological.

Department of State (DoS). "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."

Significantly, the first two definitions do not identify the agents who engage in terror. Instead, they only describe what these agents do: they "intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof," or "coerce or intimidate governments or societies." The reference to "subnational or clandestine agents" in the third definition points to non-state actors, although this is not clear. In principle, this leaves the United States free to level terrorist charges against state and non-state agents.

The official definitions are unanimous in identifying "violence" and "force" as the markers of terrorism; the second definition also includes the "threat of violence." In other words, terrorism is equated with the use of violent means; this has the advantage of excluding actions that are visibly non-violent but which maim or kill people. This concentration on violent means is politically useful: it overlooks the endemic horrors produced deliberately or knowingly by structures of unequal power.

These definitions are also vague about the proximate targets of terrorism.

The DoD does not identify a target, while the FBI does not specify whether the "persons and property" targeted belong to the private, official or military domain. Only the DoS restricts the targets to "noncombatants."[2] However, this a very broad category. It only excludes those segments of the military that are actively engaged in military hostilities. It appears that America’s enemies are offered few legitimate targets.

Finally, the US agencies define the goals of terrorism with a broad brush. In his goals, the terrorist is no different from other political actors; his goals are "political, religious or ideological." The terrorist seeks to influence an audience, whether it is the government, society or some segment of society. The message is clear: no "political, religious or ideological" goals can be supported by violence.

In the official US definition, then, terrorists are state or non-state actors who engage in, or threaten violent actions, that produce harm to property or persons ­ ‘noncombatants,’ in one formulation ­ for political, religious or ideological ends. Alternatively, terrorism is defined in terms of four ingredients. The agents of terror may be state or non-state actors. The terrorists employ violent means, actual or threatened. The instruments employed by terrorists are violent if they result in harm to persons or property. Finally, there are few restrictions on the goals of terrorists.

Consider a quaint implication of the official US definitions of terrorism. They imply that the Boston Tea Party was an act of ‘terrorism.’ The Party violated British law; it destroyed property; and its intent was to "intimidate or coerce" the British government. A fortiori, according to the official US definitions, the founding fathers, who led an armed insurrection against the lawful authority of the British in the Americas, would also appear to be ‘terrorists.’ It is an anomaly that is little noted.

It should be clear that the official US definitions of terrorism seek to de-legitimize all forms of violence in the service of any political goals. Since it is much harder to criminalize legitimate political goals that are hostile to its interests, the United States seeks to restrict the ‘legitimate’ instruments available for pursuing those goals. Violence is not a legitimate instrument of resistance whatever the conditions it is opposing. If this approach also indicts America’s founding fathers as ‘terrorists,’ it could do little harm to America’s rationale for waging endless wars. Few Americans are troubled by this inconsistency.

The official US definitions of terrorism also suffer from the opposite problem: they fall short in their coverage of terrorism. This is because terrorism can only occur through the use of means that are violent per se. If non-state actors infected with AIDS were to enter a country, and engage in random acts of love-making, eventually producing an epidemic of AIDS, they could not be described as terrorists under the US definitions. In general, the spread of pathogens, whether through water, food, air, syringes, blankets or love-making, cannot be charged with terrorism. No inherently violent act is required to spread pathogens.

The US definitions of terrorism become more problematic when we use them to judge the conduct of successive US governments. The United States has frequently employed violent actions against civilians ­ at home and abroad ­ which under its own definitions would have to be described as terrorism.[3] Indeed, in an objective evaluation of global terrorism over the past two centuries, a panel of the world’s leading ethicists might well conclude that the United States easily belongs in the category of the worst offenders. Of course, Germany, Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, the Soviet Union, and Japan would also be jostling for the top positions on this list. If Iraq under Saddam appeared on this list at all, it might just win a place very close to the bottom.

Are there any lessons hidden in all of this? Two easily come to mind. First, no country that lives in a glass house should throw rocks at others. Second, if some angry folks lob a few rocks at you, shattering a few windowpanes, then, before you get too worked up, begin by taking an inventory of the damage you have done over the years to all the houses in your neighborhood. That would be an appropriate response, instead of pleading virtue and starting to throw rocks at all the houses you covet for their location and treasures.

However, when lessons come cheap no one learns anything. The powerful never learned a lesson as long as they could teach others a lesson or two. So, it appears that rocks will be lobbed back and forth until one party or the other, or both, have learned a lesson or two. Till then, the rest of us have to try if we can lie low and protect our heads from irreparable damage. And while we keep our heads try to put some sense into the heads of those who are busy lobbing rocks all around us.

M. SHAHID ALAM, professor of economics at Northeastern University, is a regular contributor to CounterPunch.org. Some of his CounterPunch essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.



[1] David J. Whittaker, ed., The terrorism reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2001): 3.

[2] US Department of State, Patterns of global terrorism, 1993. www.fas.org/ irp/ threat/terror_93/intro.html

[3] Churchill Ward, A little matter of genocide (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1998); and Fredereck H. Gareau, State terrorism and the United States (London: Zed Books, 2004).

M. SHAHID ALAM teaches economics at a university in Boston. Some of his essays in CounterPunch have been published in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.


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