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Look over here – “terrorism”

The notion of terrorism is not well-defined.There are over 150 legal definitions in the US and more in international law. Here is the UN’s definition:

Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them. [UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60 (adopted on December 9, 1994), titled “Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism”]

and here is the FBI’s:

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.

My problem lies not in the precision of definitions as such; social facts are always wobbly and interrelated. It lies in the legal issue of harm. Why have a specific category of terrorism? What good does it do us? There are several domains in which we may seek an answer. I want to discuss three: the jurisprudential, the political, and the sociological.

Let’s begin with legal. I am not a lawyer, nor do I even have legal philosophical training, so I am likely to be very superficial here, but that may be all we need. Start with the justification for laws at all. Why do we have criminal laws? What are they intended to protect, support or achieve? As I understood it from reading Rawls and Dworkin as an undergraduate several geological epochs ago, a law is there to protect people from harm. What kind of harm? Well, the violation of their rights, however they are conceived to be.

So why do we need terrorism laws, specifically? The coercion of people’s beliefs can be a crime in itself, and is in many jurisdictions (such as “hate speech” laws). The acts of assault and murder are also crimes. Is, therefore, a crime gang that induces terror in the general population (or the state) through shootings and other kinds of felonious assaults a terrorist organization? It seems not; they are just a criminal gang, and no special policing powers or laws are required to deal with them. Most especially, the human rights of those who are not members of or dealing with a crime gang and not abrogated so that the state can deal with the crime gang (at least, in a society ruled by law).

Consider then, why such laws as the PATRIOT Act in the US, the Terrorism Acts in the UK, or the Anti-Terrorism Act in Australia, to name only a few, exist. Are they needed from a legal standpoint? I would argue, and have since before 9/11, that they are not. The intelligence communities and the police already had the laws they needed. What was lacking was resources to apply them. The terror acts were an attempt to shortcut the rights and rule of law that existed, to prevent and investigate terrorism. In short, these acts tended to violate the rights of all, and especially the hated “others”, for simple political gain.

This leads us to the political aspects of naming and pursuing terrorism. What political gain is had from naming some acts of violence more than criminal? Surely we dealt with the acts of terrorism ranging from anarchism in the late nineteenth century, through unionist Troubles in Ireland and ethnic unrest in other nations without giving up our legal and civil rights? Maybe not in the early days – anarchists and unionists were treated as dissidents are now in Russia, with no right to public expression – but the rule of law remained largely unscathed, and improved. Now we have perfectly well-meaning governments saying that 14 year olds can be detained without charge for up to 14 days. That is just wrong. That sort of power in the hands of police, let alone politicians, is a large, not small, step towards undemocratic corruption, as history has shown us repeatedly.

Moreover, the actual risk, as opposed to the perceived risk caused by breathless reporting and propaganda, of harm from terrorism is minimal, both in the US and other western nations like Australia and in Western Europe, almost none of the terror-related deaths of the past 47 years were due to Muslims (most were IRA or ETA). So why the big focus on Muslim terrorists? And that gets us to our sociological point.

Governments get support from their constituents best when they can rally around an “other”, an outgroup that can be hated and against which they can offer defense. For the duration of the Cold War, that was the Soviets and China, but now no single state threatens “our” way of life. So there needed to be another scapegoat. During the 70s it was radical leftwing groups, then in the 80s, it was Arab nationalists, followed by ex-USSR extremists. But with the Afghan wars, it came to be Muslim extremists. There is a long history of European hatred of Islam, going back to the time of the Crusades and the Al-Andalus in Spain. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islamic extremism, the Muslim faith in general was an easy target.

But why just them? Why is the violence perpetrated by Muslims terrorism, and not, for example, the actions of white supremacists in the US and Europe? The answer lies in the fact that these actions are not held to be representative of their class; white Christians. Muslims are exotic, not well understood by most westerners, and hence most westerners commit what is called the Base Rate Fallacy. They generalize from the [reported, breathlessly] acts of violence of Muslims to the entire social and political context of that religion (usually not even making distinctions between other exotic religious like Sikhs or Hindus, let alone between the multiplicity of Islamic views and lifestyles). They do not do this for white, Christian, neo-nazi supremacists, because they know that not all white Christians are like that.

So my conclusion about this is as follows:

  1. The laws should be consonant with rule of law and existing rights should not be infringed.
  2. Laws on terrorism tend to be unfairly and unjustly biased against minorities
  3. Terrorism is treated out of all proportion to its actual risk
  4. Governments use terrorism as a distraction from
    1. Having to properly resource real policing
    2. Domestic policies that might otherwise be unpopular
    3. Everything else (like funding prevention for actual risks, like health-related matters and over sentencing of crime by minorities)
  5. People tend to demonize the Others; laws should not.

In short, terrorism is a useful distraction from real issues. It should have no standing in law, policy or society. In the end, it’s just crime.


  1. Overreacting to terrorism is a genuine problem and an ironic one to boot because terrorist groups rely on public hysteria to amplify the effect of their usually quite modest power to do harm. The premeditated use of terror as a political weapon or an end in itself is a very real phenomenon however. Various anarchist groups, the Red Brigade, and ISIS, among others, developed elaborate theories justifying the use of terroristic methods. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a Czarist fabrication. The Management of Savagery is quite authentic. On a psychological level, too, the appeal of ultra violence to alienated or merely bored young men and women is a nosological reality. It isn’t entirely a scarecrow, though its use as one as an excuse for racism and repression is undeniable and deeply deplorable. As I understand things, echt terrorism is a reality; but a great deal of what gets demonized as terrorism is “normal” state behavior, legitimate protest, or just the activities of groups we don’t like. The abstract definitions of terrorism fail to help us understand our world because it doesn’t pick out an actually existing historical tendency. It’s like defining atheism as disbelief in God and expecting the definition to tell you much about the sociology of the various sorts of atheists.

  2. Aaron Clausen Aaron Clausen

    Terrorism is treated out of all proportion to its actual risk

    This… so much this! It makes me think the best way to battle terrorism is to demand everyone take and pass a statistics course that also delves into how actuaries calculate risk before they graduate high school.

    If the issue was saving lives, well, increasing highway safety or a sugar tax or early testing for cervical cancer would save so many more lives than pouring untold amounts of money into battling terrorism.

    What’s more, the notion of the sophisticated high-tech terrorist which was so much in vogue after 9-11 seems largely to have been debunked. Remember when panicked talking heads would spin frightening tales of dirty bombs or poisoned water supplies? Well, for the most part, terrorist attacks in the West have involved automatic weapons, homemade suicide vests, machetes, and, of late, trucks and vans.

    I’d argue that this fearsome foe that breathless commentators seem to treat like the Luftwaffe bearing down on us has in fact largely been defeated, when the best they can must is to grab a lorry and drive it into a crowd or slap together a suicide vest to kill little girls.

    I’m not trying to be heartless, and indeed, these people are criminals and resources should be put into tracking them and where possible arresting them and removing them from the general populace. But we’ve all become utterly irrational. I keep thinking about when the West did face actual existential threats; like the aforementioned Luftwaffe or during the height of the nuclear scare, where the potential for civilization-ending war seemed at least possible, if not entirely probable.

    But a bunch of goons with some explosive, guns, and car keys? They can cause a bit of mayhem, but these terrorists are no more effective than the IRA, ETA, or the French Resistance during the Second World War or the Spanish Partisans of the Peninsular War? These were all (depending on your definition of terrorism, which has a lot to do with which side of any conflict you may be on) astonishingly effective groups, in no small part because they all had some degree of proper organization and were to one degree or another paramilitary in structure. Now that’s a terrorist organization that can be feared, but even the IRA, while it made peoples’ lives miserable, hardly represented any kind of existential threat, so if the likes of the IRA and ETA cannot really do more than scare people, how could a few poorly organized fringe fanatics ever do much more than a small amount of mayhem?

    • Hemi Scott Hemi Scott

      Aaron wrote:

      “Remember when panicked talking heads would spin frightening tales of dirty bombs or poisoned water supplies?”

      We were worried about terrorists poisoning our water and pouring (forgive pun) resources into that while the water woes that actually happened in places such as Flint, Michigan weren’t actively prevented? I guess that’s being remedied after the fact.

  3. davidlduffy davidlduffy

    Seeing it as asymmetric warfare gives a different picture. Disruption of the economy is a useful outcome. It seems there is a reasonable literature on the economic costs of terrorism, excluding costs of combating it.

    Plucking a paper at random (Benmelech et al The Economic Cost of Harboring Terrorism 2010)

    “For example, the seminal work of Abadie and Gardeazabal (2003) shows
    that per capita GDP in the Basque Country is about 10 percentage points lower than it
    could have been in the absence of terrorism, as a consequence of the outbreak of the
    conflict in this region in 1960. Likewise, Eckstein and Tsiddon (2004) and Berrebi
    and Klor (forthcoming) find that the second Palestinian uprising had an effect of a
    similar magnitude on the Israeli economy…”

    So what are acceptable cost for prevention? For deaths (the same paper): “completed [suicide] attacks result on average in about 5 fatalities with 33 individuals injured during the attack”

    Apparently civil engineers calculate using ~$1M per prevented death for road improvements. If Australian law enforcement have uncovered, was it, 12 conspiracies plus 2 recent successful episodes, that implies an extra spending of say $80-100M is justifiable on that ground alone. The prevented drop in GDP, tourism, investment etc can be added on top of that.

  4. Jeb Jeb

    I think this makes for an interesting comparative read on a number of points. Focus is on British colonial law in the 20th century, specifically witchcraft and arson in Uganda.

    The Politics of Crime: Aggression and Control in a Colonial Context
    Elizabeth Hopkins
    American Anthropologist
    New Series, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jun., 1973), pp. 731-742

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