Defining Terrorism

In the October 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, and in the three subsequent issues, the following classified advertisement appeared, listed as “miscellaneous”.

CONTEST: $1000 prize to the first person who offers a definition of “terrorism” that both a) captures its character as a mode of combat, and b) excludes all U.S. military strategy and tactics. Respond to NYRB Box XXXX. Society for Promotion of Accuracy in Political Speech. Frank Bardacke, Douglas Lummis, Jeffrey Lustig, founders.

We placed this ad because we were concerned that while the government of our country has begun a “war against terrorism”, a war that has already destroyed many lives and promises to destroy many more, has put the fragile structure of international law under the wrecking ball, and has no foreseeable end, government spokespersons and the general public seem deeply confused about what “terrorism” is. This is serious, for without a clear definition, how can one be sure where to attack, or who is qualified to make such an attack? For the U.S. military to qualify as a body capable of carrying out such a war, it would have to be possible to define “terrorism” so as to satisfy both condition a) and condition b) as stated above. We decided to sponsor a contest to see if anyone would be able to do such a thing.

We announced the ad in other places as well: CounterPunch, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the Australian Bulletin, the Okinawa Times and the Japanese national newspaper Asahi Shinbun. We received a total of 52 responses. Some were comments (two of these in the form of photographs), some were parodies, but many were serious entries. The serious entries were of two types. Some of the better examples of the first type are,

Terrorism: Warfare conducted against civilians to wrest concessions from enemy regimes and to change their policies.

A form of violence which has the effect of filling an entire population with terror.

Terrorism is the use of political violence or warfare against civilians, by means of arms of mass destruction or tactics which violate the laws and customs of war, with the purpose of terrorizing the population and/or obtaining concessions from or imposing decisions to the government.

These definitions are fairly close to the U.S. Department of Defense definition: “the unlawful use of-or threatened use of-force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives.” Each cogently captures an aspect of terrorism as a mode of combat. Terrorism is violence intentionally inflicted on non-combatant civilians; it aims to terrify an entire population; it violates the laws and customs of war; it is (unlike, say, bank robbery) carried out for political or religious motives. If the contest consisted solely of condition: a)-the definition must capture the character of terrorism as a mode of combat-these would all be strong contenders. However none of these entries addresses condition; b) ?the definition must exclude all US military strategy and tactics. Is it self?evident that if terrorism is defined as outside the law, or even simply as violent and terrifying, the US military has been excluded automatically? Is the possibility that there might be any U.S. government actions that fit these descriptions unthinkable?

Some examples of the second type are,

TERRORISM: Act or acts of violence (usually ruthless) against life and property, aiming at political objectives, but performed by non-military forces on behalf of extra-legal organizations.

TERRORISM is the expression of clandestine groups or individuals committed to surprise violent operational attacks, often deadly, sometimes suicidal, against both civilian and constituted authority designed to create fear, confusion, general demoralization, weariness and hopelessness with the ultimate long-term objective of forcing regime change and/or [changes in] regime policies.

What these definitions share is the belief that the US military can be excluded by saying it is excluded. They define terrorism by its perpetrator (extra-legal organizations or clandestine groups) rather than by its character. What mainly matters in the definition is not what is done, but who did it. This form of definition, with of course many variations, has great authority in American society today. It is the definitional strategy used by the U.S. State Department, which tells us that “[t]he term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” And that is how the word is used by government spokespersons, in mainstream journalism, and in daily conversation.

Of course, when we initiated this contest we were aware of both of these definitional strategies, and did not believe that they work. Now it is time to explain why. Coincidentally, in the fourth issue of NYRB in which our ad appeared, there was an article by Colin McGinn on Karl Popper (“Looking for a Black Swan”, NYRB Nov 21, 2002). In it, Popper’s methodology of “conjectures and refutations” was stated in simple form: “[S]cience proceeds by falsification, which is logically impeccable, since the observation of a single black swan decisively refutes the hypothesis that all swans are white.” But why is this so? If swans are defined as white, why isn’t someone who calls that big black bird a swan simply wrong? Why isn’t the expression “the observation of a single black swan” rejected as begging the question, as assuming what is to be proved? What is wrong with simply saying, “No, that’s not a swan? Why not? Because it isn’t white.”

The answer (and this is one of McGinn’s main points) is that the big black bird is like a white swan in every other respect. It is shaped like a swan, it swims like a swan, it walks and flies like a swan, it eats what a swan eats, it breeds like a swan and (as we now know) it has the DNA of a swan. While it might be logically consistent to continue to insist that the bird is not a swan because it doesn’t fit every element in the generally accepted definition (it isn’t white), to do so would be to distort our picture of reality. Such definitions put an end to the effort to understand what is going on around us , and arrest the course of inquiry, which is Popper’s point.

In the same way, to say that none of the activities of the U.S. military counts as terrorism because government actions have been excluded from the definition is also to abandon the effort to understand what’s happening in the world. Each of the above definitions describes a mode of violent actions, and then either assumes or states that such actions are limited to extra-legal, non-governmental groups. Why are they so limited? Is it because governments never ever do such things? Or is it because when governments do carry out such actions, we call them by a different name?

In moral and legal discourse there is precedent for such selective usage. We call forcible confinement “kidnapping” when it is done outside the law, but “arrest” or “imprisonment” when it is done by state authorities. We call killing “murder” when it is done outside the law, and “execution” when it is done on the order of a legitimate court. The words “kidnapping” and “murder” have illegality and illegitimacy built into their meanings. Though, as we will argue below, being outside the law is part of its essence, “terrorism” is not the name of a particular illegal act, but rather the name of a strategy that is carried out by a variety of different acts. Most notable among these, as mentioned by most of the contest entrants, is the intentional killing of non-combatants. But the intentional killing of non-combatants is illegal no matter who does it. The laws of war, whether traditional, embodied in modern international law, or stipulated in the military codes of states, do not say that the intentional killing of non-combatants is a war crime “unless carried out by uniformed members of state military organizations.” On the contrary, it is primarily uniformed military that these laws were designed to restrain. The acts that constitute terrorism do not cease to be crimes if carried out by military personnel; if anything, they become even more blamable.

But terrorism is not the name of a crime, it is the name of a strategy, “a mode of combat” as we put it in our contest announcement. The acts that constitute terrorism are in the same category as other modes of combat such as frontal assault, flank attack, pincers movement, siege, saturation bombing, assassination of leaders, gas attack, torture of prisoners and the like. Some of these are legal and some are not, but we do not call them by different names depending on who does them. We do not define “torture” as “the practice by non-government groups of inflicting pain on prisoners to obtain information and/or confessions.” Torture is torture, no matter who does it. The same is true of terrorism. You cannot make state terror disappear by defining it as impossible, any more than you can make a black swan disappear by defining it as impossible. First you need to define what kind of activity terrorism is, and then you have to look and see whether any government activities-or for the purposes of this contest, any U.S. military activities-fall within that definition. If the U.S. military has strategies that walk like terrorism, talk like terrorism, feel like terrorism, look like terrorism, have the effect of terrorism (and turn out to have the same DNA as terrorism) then they are terrorism.

What, then, is terrorism?

We were surprised that none of the contestants began with what seemed like the obvious thing, looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary or some other old authoritative source. The OED definitions are instructive:

Terrorism 1. Government by intimidation as directed and carried out by the party in power in France during the Revolution of 1789-94; the system of the ‘Terror’ (1793-94).

2. gen. A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized.

“Terrorism” originally meant a method used by a government to subjugate its people by killing some of them at random. Crucial to The Reign of Terror was the disintegration of law. Under the rule of law, we can have a pretty good idea of which sorts of actions are likely to bring down state violence against us , and which are not. Knowing this, it’s possible to pick a course of action that is relatively safe and free from fear. Under the Reign of Terror, this safety map was dissolved. Speech or behavior that was innocent yesterday could be a capital crime today; today’s model citoyen could be under the guillotine tomorrow. When violence follows no known rule and is carried out at random, there is no path a person can choose that will ensure safety. Death can come to anyone at any time: thus, terror.

The meaning of terrorism later expanded to include not only a strategy in the state’s war against its people but also one that people can use against the state or a colonized nation can use against a colonizing nation. It also can be used in warfare between states. The strategy is to demoralize the enemy by refusing to follow any rule in selecting victims, so that no one in the enemy group can feel safe and there is no rational course of action that can be taken for self–defense. “Refusal to follow any rule” means, for states using terror against their citizens, refusal to follow a known criminal code, so that the people will have no idea of what acts are punishable. For a military at war it means refusal to follow the laws of war that prohibit killing non-combatants, so that there is no way to make yourself immune from attack. For a clandestine organization fighting against a government, it means not only refusing to obey the criminal code and the laws of war, but also following no rule or system in selecting victims. Thus terrorism is different from assassination, with which it is often confused. Assassins do kill non-combatants, but not randomly: they know who their victims are, for they select them on the basis of what they have done or what positions of authority they hold. The terrorist who throws a bomb into a restaurant or under a commuter bus doesn’t know who will get blown apart, and probably doesn’t care. The message is, No one is safe. What these three forms of terrorism share is radical illegality. Illegality is not simply an unfortunate “necessary evil”, it is central to the strategy. Terrorism derives its particular force, its terror, not from the scale of the damage or the numbers of the victims, which may be large or small, but from its refusal to follow any rule of law or of human civility. It is an attack on civil society itself.

After the airplane was invented there was a long debate among military theorists on how it could best be used as a weapon. Some favored using it for close air support of troops in the field. Some favored using it to bomb factories that produced military supplies. Some favored using it to bomb all industrial centers no matter what they produced. And some argued that it should be used to bomb civilians. This last position came to be called the Douhet model after the Italian General Giulio Douhet, who wrote in support of the idea in the 1920s. According to Douhet, indiscriminate bombing of cities would eventually destroy the people’s will to resist, and cause them to rise up and force their government to end the war. “A people who are bombed today as they were bombed yesterday, who know they will be bombed again tomorrow and see no end to their martyrdom, are bound to call for peace at length.” The Douhet strategy also came to be called, correctly, “terror bombing”. For example it was called that by no less an authority than Winston Churchill, to describe what the RAF was doing in Germany during World War II.

While the Douhet model was positively adopted by the RAF, the U.S. military, at the beginning of the war, clung to the idea that bombing should be limited to close air support in combat zones, and military targets such as factories and warehouses. But, as is well known, this limitation broke down as the war progressed, and disappeared altogether in the fire-bombings carried out in Germany and Japan, and in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In his 1983 study Political Terrorism, Alex P. Schmid collected 108 definitions of terrorism dating from 1936 to1981. Reading through them one can get a sense of the long struggle that took place between those who clung to the original definition, in which state terrorism is included, and those who were searching for a definition that would make state terrorism invisible. Among the former, perhaps the most succinct and eloquent is that of Raymond Aron (1966):

An action of violence is labeled “terrorist” when its psychological effects are out of proportion to its purely physical result. In this sense, the so-called indiscriminate acts of revolutionaries are terrorist, as were the Anglo-American zone bombings. The lack of discrimination helps to spread fear, for if no one in particular is a target, no one can be safe.

Definitions that try to exclude state terror generally use one of the two definitional strategies described above, and none has the lucidity of Aron’s. Taken together they form a fine example of George Orwell’s principle that the quality of political writing deteriorates badly when the writer has something to hide. Still, it is that kind of definition that has come to dominate terrorism discourse. We will refrain here from making a long list of U.S. bombing campaigns since World War II that were carried out on the Douhet terror bombing model, and turn instead to the situation today. Is there anything in U.S. strategy and tactics that falls within the definition of terrorism?

Of course we will not find the answer to this by looking at the public pronouncements of military spokespersons. They are forced by international law, by U.S. military law, and by both domestic and international public opinion to say that the U.S. military never intentionally targets civilians. This is an important difference from non-governmental terrorist groups. The claim that civilians are never targeted, even if false, preserves the public principle that civilians ought not to be targeted. But the problem is that it preserves this principle only in hypocritical form, for of course government leaders know differently, and the troops in the air or on the ground also know differently. We hear a lot about smart bombs, but during the war against Afghanistan the U.S. military was also dropping 2000 lb. dumb bombs. What for? An officer on the USS Carl Vinson gave a persuasive explanation: “A 2000 pound bomb, no matter where you drop it, is a significant emotional event for anyone within a square mile.” “Significant emotional event” is a dry euphemism for “terrifying”. We don’t know which 2000 pound bomb the officer was referring to, but if it was the CBU-75 Sadeye, it was a cluster bomb that contains 1800 one-pound bomblets, each containing 0.7 pounds of TNT with 700 razor-sharp steel shards imbedded in it, lethal up to 40 feet. These are scattered over an area equivalent to 157 football fields; presumably nothing-military, civilian, old, young, male, female-survives within this space. Many of the bomblets fail to go off and become landmines, the perfect random killer. The people who drop these bombs know all this.

Or consider the AC-130. This is one of those gigantic cargo planes that has been modified so that it can shoot 20 mm and 7.62 mm Gatling guns and a 105 mm howitzer out the side door. It circles around its target like a giant roc, and rains down fire from all sides. We hear that within seconds its Gatling guns, firing up to 6000 rounds per minute, can fill an area the size of a football field with one round per square foot (how they love those football fields!). We hear that part of its utility is the terrifying effect of the deafening sound of its huge propeller engines combined with the boom of the howitzer coming from high in the sky. The terror it inflicts has been embodied in the nicknames it has been given: “Dragonship”, “Spooky”, “Spectre”. It is effective against military targets like tanks and trucks, but it is also used for area bombardment. For example, it was the AC 130 that attacked the Afghan town of Chowkar-Karez on October 22-23, 2001, killing, it is said, 93 civilians. This was the incident that provoked the notorious comment from a Pentagon official, “The people there are dead because we wanted them dead” (so much for “unintentional collateral damage”).

Or consider the BLU-82B, variously nicknamed Big Blue or Daisy Cutter. This is the biggest non-nuclear bomb the U.S. military has. It is described as being the size of Volkswagen beetle but much heavier: at 15000 lb. ordinary bombers can’t carry it, so it has to be delivered from an MC-130 cargo plane, flying at an altitude of at least 6000 feet to keep the blast from damaging the plane. It was originally developed to rip open helicopter landing fields in the jungle of Vietnam, but it has since been used as an anti-personnel weapon both during Desert Storm and in the war against Afghanistan. Its lethal radius is reported to be between 300 and 600 feet (“five football fields” according to another source). Military sources say that its “psychological effect” is at least as useful as the material destruction it wreaks. British troops who saw it used in Afghanistan thought the U.S. had started using nuclear weapons. There are reports of GIs breaking down in tears while describing its effects. (Just after this was written, there was a news report that the U.S. military has developed a Bigger Blue, this one a 26000 lb. bomb with a lethal radius of half a mile. The report said it had been made ready “just in time” for use in Iraq.)

Or consider the CBU-72/B, a cluster bomb that contains three BLU-73/B fuel-air explosives (FAE). Each of these holds 75 lb of ethylene oxide. The first explosion turns this into an aerosol cloud 60 feet in diameter and 9 feet thick; the second explosion ignites this, “turns the air into fire” according to one description. The particular advantage of this is that there is no such thing as “taking shelter”. The cloud follows the victims anywhere; they will even inhale the burning fuel. Even if they are in deep bunkers, the explosion burns up all the oxygen from the air, and creates a vacuum that ruptures the lungs and other internal organs. And if it fails to ignite it is still a killer: the aerosol itself is as lethal as poison gas. The U.S. dropped 254 of these during the Gulf War where, like the Daisy Cutter, it was particularly valued for its “psychological effect”.

“Psychological effect” is another euphemism for terror. Of course, it is no violation of the laws of war to try to terrorize the enemy’s military forces. If these weapons are used, as U.S. military spokespersons will say, only against legitimate military targets then that is not a violation of international law, and it is not terrorism. But this claim is belied by the very nature of the weapons: the intention to “kill all” is designed into them. Given their massive lethal effect, how often could one find a military target so isolated from civilian life that no non-combatants will be affected? And it doesn’t matter that at a press conference some colonel or general says “Oops!” or “Sorry about that!” and labels it “collateral damage”. That term misidentifies a strategy as a mere tactic gone wrong. These weapons of mass destruction are built to obliterate any living thing within a huge area; if the civilians in that area are also obliterated it is not like being hit by a stray bullet. The people who drop these bombs drop them with the intention of killing everybody who’s down there. When they all turn up dead, you can’t call it an accident.

In case there is any reader not yet convinced that these weapons have terrorism designed into them, we will turn to the clinching case: nuclear weapons. There is no need here to describe what nuclear weapons do; everybody knows that. Nuclear weapons are utterly incapable of distinguishing civilian from military targets. They are terrorism writ large: instead of blowing up everybody who happens to be in a restaurant or commuter bus, they blow up and/or irradiate everybody who happens to be in a city and torture their descendents. Nuclear weapons have no other use but terror bombing. Oh, yes, they may have a deterrent effect. But how is this deterrent effect produced?

“Deterrence should create fear in an opponent’s mind of extinction . . .” according to a recently declassified 1995 position paper of the U.S. Strategic Command. “The United States should have available the full range of responses, conventional weapons, special weapons, and nuclear weapons. Unlike chemical and biological weapons, the extreme destruction from a nuclear explosion is immediate, with few if any palliatives to reduce its effect.” Of course this is inaccurate; there are people even today dying of the radiation effects of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the report goes on, “Although we are not likely to use nuclear weapons in less than matters of the greatest national importance, or in less than extreme circumstances, nuclear weapons always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict in which we are engaged. Thus, deterrence through the threat of use of nuclear weapons will continue to be our top military strategy.”

The vagueness of the expression “not likely” is not accidental; it is strategy. When asked if nuclear weapons are stored in its bases in, for example, Japan, where they are illegal, the U.S. military always answers, “it is our policy neither to confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons in any particular location.” The Japanese government uses this to assure the public that there are not any in the country, but any potential U.S. enemy country has no choice but to assume that there are. Similarly “not likely” says to the general public, “don’t worry, we probably won’t do it,” and to potential enemies, “but we might.” Moreover, while critics of nuclear weapons are assured that (unlike weapons possessed by “rogue states”) America’s nuclear weapons are in rational hands, this is not, the Strategic Command tells us, the right message to send to the enemy.

While it is crucial to explicitly define and communicate the acts or damage that we would find unacceptable, we should not be too specific about our responses. Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US might do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries. This sort of “Madman Strategy” (as it was called by Kissinger and Nixon) means letting the enemy know that if the U.S. is defied it might respond by ignoring the strictures of international law and the traditional laws of war, and even the rules of “rational” military strategy, and start killing vindictively and at random. In short, it is a threat of terrorism, in the strictest sense of the word.

That the Madman Strategy is not something idiosyncratic to this or that president or cabinet member, but is built into U.S. military policy can help to explain the behavior of the U.S. government in the last year and a half. Perhaps it can also help to explain “Shock and Awe”, the war plan for attacking Iraq that was recently leaked to CBS News Correspondent David Martin (“Shock and Awe” being yet another euphemism for terror). According to that plan on the first day of the attack, 300 to 400 missiles will rain down on Iraq, more than were used in the entire 40 days of the Gulf War. On the second day, the same. And so on. Harlan Ullman of the National Defense University, who helped develop Shock and Awe, says, “So that you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons [sic] at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks, but minutes.” It’s not clear what he means by “days and weeks”: the blast and burn effects of the atomic bomb took seconds, the radiation effects continue to this day. It seems our military experts are a little muddled about what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it’s clear enough what Ullman is trying to say: Shock and Awe is going to surpass the bombing of Hiroshima. Apparently this is a boast, as is the comment by a Pentagon official, “The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.” (Well, perhaps it was once seen at Sodom and Gomorrah, not far from Baghdad, but never before by human hand.) The same official says, “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.” Presumably the official knows the vast majority of the 8 million people living in Baghdad are civilians. If this attack is carried out, our contest will have been rendered entirely obsolete, and even quaint. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, some of the entries we received were parodies. For example,

Terrorism, n. A subjective term for violent acts invoking terror in its victims and associates, the flipside of just and honourable pre-emptive strikes and differentiated from such solely in the eye of the beholder.

Terrorism-Use of violence or intimidation against civilian populations for political, economic, or religious purposes without prior sanction of the United States government.

Terrorism is the threat or use of force, by anyone except the US and its clients, against defenseless people with the intention of pressuring their governments.

The author of the last of these continues, “It so happens this is the working definition of terrorism for the US, its clients and the intellectual guardians of approved truth.”?@ This is true. It is also true that many of the serious entries, such as those quoted at the beginning of this essay, are also accurate “working definitions”, if we mean by that, definitions that capture the way the word is currently used by government officials and by the mainstream media. But if so, why shouldn’t the one with the earliest postmark should be awarded the prize? The answer is that while they accurately describe how the word is used, they don’t accurately describe reality, because the word has become a doublethink word. Terrorism originally referred to an action of government. During World War II and for some years after, area bombing was called terror bombing. Today this side of the word has vanished from mainstream usage. This is not because state terror, and in particular U.S. state terror, has disappeared. As we have sought to show in this essay, it has not. Rather it is the result of a politically motivated campaign to make state terror invisible by abolishing the words for describing it. As a speech act, to use the word under its “working definition” is to engage in a positive act of deception, both of oneself and of others. It is to use language not to describe reality but to conceal part of it. The problem with self-deception is that when you conceal something from yourself you have both to know what it is in order to conceal it, and not to know it after you conceal it, which is why it is called doublethink and why it is unhealthy to the spirit. What is remarkable is that the notion of state terrorism has not entirely vanished from our vocabulary. Opponents of U.S. policy do talk about it, but in mainstream discourse the term has come to sound like an oxymoron, or simply biased name-calling, rather than the name of a real phenomenon. In Orwell’s Oceania, doublethink succeeded under totalitarian rule. It is frightening to see how powerful a force it can be even in a situation where speech and the press are technically free.

Two more entries deserve mention, both consisting of photographs. One begins with the headline, “US Policy Made Simple”. Below that are two photographs of destroyed buildings. The one on the left has above it, “New York, September 11, 2001”, and below it, “Terrorism”. The photo on the right has above it, “Jenin, April 18, 2002”, and below it, “Counter-terrorism”. At the bottom of the page is written, “Any Questions?” The other is a photograph by Robert Stolarik of a woman of Asian descent fleeing the collapsing World Trade Center in New York. On the photograph just to her right has been pasted the 1972 Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph by Nick Ut of little Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a U.S. napalm attack in Vietnam. The two women are running side by side, their arms in the same position, the same look of terror on their faces. Above the photographs is written, “A la recherch? du temps perdu”, and below, “No one has a monopoly on terror.” These photographs make clear, in way that words cannot, that what matters about terrorism is not the formal status of the perpetrator but what is done to the victims.

Douglas Lummis is a political scientist living in Okinawa and the author of Radical Democracy. Lummis can be reached at:

Frank Bardacke is writing a political biography of Cesar Chavez and lives in Watsonville, California. He the author of Good Liberals and Blue Herons and is co-translator of Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiques of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. He can be reached at:

Jeffrey Lustig teaches at Cal State Sacramento and is the author of Corporate Liberalism: the Origins of Modern American Political Theory. Lustig can be reached at: