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Terrorism: What Is It?

Many people have become confused just exactly what terrorism is.

Before one can meaningfully mention terrorism in any discussion, it would be a good idea to have a definition of it, or at least a working agreement between the two people shouting at each other what it is before the shouting starts.

Unless, of course, they just happen to be shouting about how to define terrorism.

Working Towards A Working Definition

Of course, rather than just running right towards a definition of what terrorism is, it might be worthwhile to say what terrorism is not.

In which case, one would have to be introduced to the world of the hardcore, rabid political right wing losers. These creeps do their best to exploit and encourage confusion about what terrorism is.

No, terrorism is not mere political opposition to whatever George W. Bush or his goose-stepping, jack-booted, brown shirt-wearing thugs believe in, no matter what Bush or those thugs might tell you.

No, terrorists are not teachers in public schools who happen to be members of the National Education Association (NEA), despite what that embarrassment to the nation, Bush’s secretary of education, Rod Paige, would have you believe. (Note also that a former secretary of education under Bush’s daddy, William Bennett, has also proven himself to be an equally contemptible embarrassment to the nation.)

Terrorism is also not the principled set of beliefs in acts undertaken in defense of or in pursuit of liberty, such as the Sandinistas fighting for the overthrow of a U.S.-supported murdering dictator like Anastasia Somoza. Or of Iranians overthrowing the equally brutal Saddam-like dictator Shah Reza Pahlevi, also supported by the United States. The next time a U.S. president tells you he is leading the war against terrorism, maybe you ought to tell him to quit supporting terrorism, such as the support given by the United States to Arab- hating, anti-Muslim bigots and right-wing scum like Ariel Sharon who leads the government of Israel in the brutal killing and oppression of innocent Palestinians.

Keep in mind just who the terrorists are. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The only reason George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson are not regarded as terrorists is because winners get to write the history books. There is often a fine line between the revolutionary and the terrorist.

Terrorism: Defined

Perhaps there is wide agreement on the following definition for terrorism, and that it is the use of violence to create terror or fear in the public, usually as a means to achieve political ends. [1]

This definition must be carefully considered. It is the difference between finding people like Washington and Jefferson to be true revolutionaries, and the people who blew up the World Trade Center to be the worst kind of bastard, terrorist scum. Is it not the case that the sincere revolutionary would say that he has no other means but violence to effect an end to tyranny and to the absence of a democratic state (one in which the people rule themselves in one form or another)? And it should be said that the terrorist uses violence to achieve political changes because he knows that he cannot obtain them through available democratic means, namely through elections and the vote of the people (hence the phrase the bullet versus the ballot).

The overthrow of someone like a Castro or a Saddam would not be an act of terrorism, ostensibly because these men are tyrants who do not permit changes to the laws or leadership of the state through democratic means.

But then Castro and Saddam would protest that they do, in fact, hold elections, which they happen to win. Their opponents and detractors would then bellow, What elections!? They prevent or disqualify their opponents from being eligible candidates, and any one brave enough to oppose them openly would probably be killed! These putative defenders of democracy would add: In our country, any citizen has the right to stand in an election and have a fair chance at being an official of the state.

Causes of Terrorism: The Deprivation of Political & Human Rights And Civil Liberties By The State

Of course, it's all entirely relative. In the U.S. it's not true that just any citizen can attain and hold high office. For one thing, laws can forbid not only a citizen from holding office, but even from voting. I refer, of course, to an ever-growing numbers of citizens of the U.S. population who has been convicted of crimes, namely felonies. Convicted felons are forbidden from holding office or even voting, and that includes felons who have done their full time, who have completed their program of punishment, and whom society wants to rehabilitate, who society wants to re-integrate into the community. How can a convicted felon, who has done his sentence, consider himself or herself once again part of the community if the laws of the state are designed to exclude them from being rehabilitated, from again participating as upstanding members of society? Instead many states in the United States have laws which permanently brand convicted, fully rehabilitated felons with a scarlet letter, a big letter F for felon or C for convict.

Moreover it does not take much to make one a convicted felon with total loss of civil liberties and all voting rights in some, particularly backward states of the U.S. For example, the mere possession of small amounts of marijuana is sufficient to cause a lifetime loss of voting rights if the person is convicted or stipulates to the crime. In the southern part of the United States, white racists have been resisting for years any rights given to blacks, especially voting rights. Well, what these bigots cannot achieve through outright discrimination they can achieve through trying to convict blacks falsely or otherwise of small-time felonies, crimes sufficient to take away their voting rights forever under state law.

Will these blacks in the southern U.S. not resort to acts of violence in protest of the rights taken from them by a racist, bigoted system purely designed to deny them these rights? Will these acts of violence really be motivated by political beliefs? And thus are these acts of violence really terrorism by definition? And thus is the case not made that acts of terrorism are acts of criminal violence, and thus acts of crime?

But here is where it is absolutely proven that terrorism defines acts of crime and not acts of war: would those racist whites in power in southern U.S. states send in the U.S. military to put down organized groups of militant blacks or would they mount up a posse of heavily armed deputies? Is that really a question that needs to be asked?

A War On Terrorism Is Just Another Form of The War On Crime

Much has been said about just how to fight terrorism. Bush and his right-wing fanatical followers have said that terrorism is fought with a military.

That would be true if the police force was also the nation's military, or the military also served as a nation's police force, as is true in some countries which are, by the way, thought of as less than democratic in that they deny political rights and civil liberties to their citizens.

But in the United States at least, the police force and the military are quite distinct, and pains are taken to keep them distinct. It is a serious matter, usually involving a suspension of the U.S. Constitution, for government at any level (federal, state) in the U.S. to make use the military as a police force to control the civilian population.

In distinguishing the police from the military, one actually distinguishes the function/purpose of the police apart from the military. The function or role or purpose of the police is to enforce the laws: the breaking of laws are called crimes, and so it is the function of police to deal with crimes.

We thus begin to form an argument whose conclusion will be made plain as much as it is made valid and sound:

1. It is a function of law enforcement, namely the police, to combat crime.

Better yet, crime is a matter for the laws of the state, and police serve the function of law enforcement.

Now on to the perhaps controversial second premise of the argument.

2. Terrorism is crime.

That is, terrorism is a special class of crime perhaps, but it is crime nonetheless.

Truly there are no real differences between the methods of the terrorist who moves globally across international borders and commits his violent acts, and the actions of the domestic terrorist, who pretty much commits the same acts of terrorism and criminal violence in style and in form.

Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the coordinated plan of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to attack populated centers using hijacked airliners are different only in the means by which the killing was done and the numbers killed. The fact is, terrorism is not qualified by the horrific numbers killed or the ugly way in which they are killed or in the decision of the news media to sensationalize one event over the other. Go back to the definition of terrorism to understand what it is, and that it is also a type of crime, but a crime nonetheless.

As further proof that terrorism is crime, when McVeigh was caught, he was processed through the criminal justice system. He was accused as a criminal, given his rights and day in court, and subsequently punished under that system.

If the 2nd premise that terrorism is crime is thus accepted, then it's an easy step to the conclusion of this argument, both valid and sound:

1. It is a function of law enforcement, namely the police, to combat crime.

2. Terrorism is crime.

Conclusion: It is the function of law enforcment to combat terrorism.

Acts of Crime Versus Acts of War

A great many people are confused about what an act of crime is and how that relates to an act of war, and those confused people are not just Bush and his right-wing coterie.

It is important to consider the parties or entities involved between whom these acts are committed, or where one party/entity perpetrates one act against another that is ostensibly criminal: by ostensibly criminal, it is the case that the act is unjust or wrong, and perhaps a violent act. (Note that not all acts of crime involve violence, as not all acts of war involve violence.)

When one individual or group of individuals (a criminal conspiracy) commit such acts against another individual or group of individuals (corporation, other legal association), these acts are crimes if the laws of the state define these acts to be prohibited or forbidden, and explicitly as crimes. And it is the system of administration of justice of the state which processes the accused. Note that the state (as constituted in the United States) in this case is ultimately the nation-state; the nation-state may organize itself into smaller jurisdictions and give authority for the administration of justice to those smaller jurisdictions, but the actions of all minor or substates within the nation-state ultimately become the responsibility of the nation-state. Thus when the state of Texas executes a Mexican national as part of the administration of justice within its jurisdiction, the protest of the government of Mexico, a nation-state, over the use of the death penalty must be to the government of the United States, a nation-state.

Now suppose that the individual or group of individuals perpetrating what is a crime in one nation-state cross borders to commit that crime, and then escape the jurisdiction to return to their home country. Or in the case of the 11 September act of terror, the criminals who effected the crime committed suicide as part of their larger criminal conspiracy, but those who organized the conspiracy remained out of danger of being caught or captured in a distant country.

Many governments have bilateral or multilateral agreements with one another regarding the extradition of criminal suspects and the conditions for extradition and trial and punishment. In the case of Afghanistan, which was ruled de facto by the Taliban [2], the United States had no agreement regarding administration of justice, if it had any agreement whatsoever on any other matter as well.

Had any nation-state committed so horrific an act as the 11 September act of terror, the government of the United States would have most certainly regarded it as an act of war. The United States would have been well within its rights—and under international law, as set forth in formalized principles that comprise the charter and resolutions of the United Nations—to have undertaken a military response in defense of its territory.

But the United States had no evidence whatsoever, either contemporaneously or in hindsight, that the hand of a nation-state had been involved with the 11 September terror. (Even the criminals against the peace Bush and Cheney could never make the case that the immediate suspect Saddam Hussein was behind it, and admitted as much when pressed.)

Despite the absence of an extradition treaty and even the formal acknowledgement of the Taliban as the leaders of Afghanistan, George W. Bush well knew that the terror group Al Qaeda was behind 11 September, and that its leadership was residing in territory under Taliban control.

With the sympathy and approval of most of the civilized world behind him, Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over to the authorities of the United States a list of individuals well known to be part of the organizational hierarchy of Al Qaeda, with Osama bin Laden first and foremost as its head.

Note well what Bush was demanding: he was demanding that the Al Qaeda criminals be handed over to authorities of the United States...law enforcement authorities. Namely, the FBI.

Bush was not demanding or even thinking of sending any member of the United States armed forces. This was not a military matter. Bush had ruled out an act of war, either consciously or otherwise, when he realized that no nation-state, its leader(s) or any of its agents, had been behind the conspiracy.

Thus, whether Bush realized it or not, he was acknowledging that the 11 September act of terrorism was an act of crime, and not ann act of war. Its perpetrators were to be processed through the criminal justice system, and no part of the U.S. military was to be involved in their apprehension or processing of justice.

It was only at the moment that the Taliban resisted demands of extradition from Bush that the conflict between the United States and Afghanistan took on the dimension of war.

The Taliban hesitated to respond to Bush's immediate demands for unconditional extradition.

The Taliban were calculating. For some time, they had been trying to get recognition in the United Nations and to seat an ambassador there. They sensed an opportunity here, and perhaps in exchange for turning over the Al Qaeda mass murderers, they would get the United States government to sponsor their application for recognition by the U.N.

And while Bush would have certainly been agreeable to such a proposal, for such cooperation by the Taliban would have been an indication they were part of the fight against international terrorism, the Taliban had to consider the consequences of handing over not just fellow Muslims, but fellow radical Muslims, to a country ruled by infidels and promoting a non-Muslim culture.

The Taliban, themselves perhaps the most radical of Muslims, had to choose between whether it was better to piss off fellow Muslims with whom they lived and drank tea and who surrounded them and who might kill them for betraying their own kind to the infidels...or whether it was better to piss off Americans who were half a world away and had shown a tendency to shy away from fights.

The problem of the Taliban is that they were not aware that wars like Korea and Vietnam were wars the United States did not have to fight because these were not really wars constituting responses to attacks on the territory of the United States, but that they were wars started by anti-Communist paranoid Americans who should have never been given policy-making authority in government. In every case in which the territory of the United States was attacked, the people of the United States enthusiastically went to war to defend their territory, and they kicked ass. But then world history was obviously not part of the Taliban curriculum.

Thus while the 11 September event perpetrated by Al Qaeda was not an act of war, but was an act of terror, and therefore an act of crime, the act of the Taliban to harbor and protect terrorists who had committed the worst act of terrorism in history was itself truly an act of war.

The Taliban represented the nation-state of Afghanistan, or at least they represented no-man's land that was there. Its decision to protect the members of Al Qaeda from capture and arrest was, in effect, sponsorship of terrorism. Nation-states that sponsor crime against another nation-state commit acts of war against that nation-state, even if official agents of the state or members of their armed forces do not themselves perpetrate such acts across borders. A nation-state can legitimately respond to another committing acts of war (aggression) against it, and can respond with military force. Just as the United States did.

Note this very well.

What Al Qaeda did in the 11 September terror was an act of crime. And the United States demanded from the Taliban the unconditional surrender of these criminals to law enforcement authorities of the U.S. (the FBI). When the Taliban refused to accede to these demands, they were warned by the U.S. that the crimes were so severe that a refusal to cooperate would be interpreted as sponsorship of terrorism and endorsement of the acts of terrorism, with such an endorsement being part of the conspiracy to commit terror. Because the Taliban represented a nation-state, such acts can be legally construed as acts of war. And so the United States would respond in kind in defense against this act of war: with its military, and not with its police (FBI).


The conclusion should be clear now: terrorism is a act of crime and not an act of war. The historical record shows, and examples of that have been given above, where nation-states have treated acts of terrorism as acts of crime, processing those arrested by law enforcement authorities of the state through their criminal justice systems. No armies, no navies, no air forces, no marine battle forces, nor other military organizations were ever used in going after terrorists where those terrorists did not operate in the absence of a nation-state (i.e., where they operated in a no-man's land, or were the de facto leaders of a territory themselves). Those who use politically motivated violence, the classic terrorists, against the state, are pursued by the cops of that state.

Those who find themselves involved in a shouting match regarding crime, terror, war, and wars on crime and wars on terrorism, should insist from those making the argument that terrorism is an act of war instead of an act of crime that they explain themselves about what they really know about terrorism and whether they have their definitions in order. Most of the time, one learns that the shouting is all about a failure to get the terms straight, and that the shouting comes to an end when everyone finally gets the definitions down consistent with the facts that include the historical treatment of terrorism and terrorists.


[1] I know this definition for terrorism is not mine, and I thought I got it from Merriam-Webster, but its online definition is not at all worded as I have given it. However, this definition is expressed in words like these in several authoritative sources, including Britannica. [Go back to text]

[2] The Taliban were the de facto rulers of Afghanistan as opposed to the de jure leaders of the country, since they had not been given a seat at the United Nations as the legitimately chosen government, and many nations did not certify its ruling authority subsequent to the overthrow of the puppet of the Soviet Union, Najibullah. [Go back to text]


Mavi Gözler
American Patriot

28 July 2004
Revised: 11 December 2004, 12 September 2008, 4 February 2010

All errors in content and style are mine. Remarks, compliments, criticisms, suggestions, and even proofreader's comments are all welcome; any revisions made to the text suggested by a proofreader will be credited on this page with name of proofreader, unless an explicit request not to do so is submitted.

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