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Defining Terrorism: Violence Is Violence

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In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Canada, like her neighbour to the south, created a slew of new laws specific to the detention of people as related to terrorist activities. These laws gave the government the power to detain people not just for committing terrorist acts, but also for their potential to commit said acts.

While that's all very well and good and maybe even necessary, the difficulty lies in defining exactly what a terrorist act is. Part of Canada's law defining a terrorist act was struck down as being unconstitutional the other day by Superior Court judge on the grounds that it impinged upon the right to freedom of religion.

In his ruling he said that defining terrorist activities as criminal acts motivated by religion is a serious infringement on religious freedom. While some are dismissing this action as not really being that big a deal, because it doesn't add anything to the already nebulous definition of what actually is a terrorist act, the fact of the matter is that it does eliminate the possibility that anybody is going to be picked up as a potential terrorist based on their religion.

It seems that Canada is using a process of elimination in an attempt to define what exactly constitutes terrorism and an act of terror. As it stands now, our attempts are in line with pretty much the rest of world and the United Nations. But the problem is nobody has actually defined what exactly terrorism is. U.N. Resolution 1566 might say things like attacks on civilians to coerce a government into doing or not doing something are acts of terrorism, but there is no definitive definition as to what makes a person a terrorist.

The problem is there is a certain amount of moral ambiguity about some of the ways we would define terrorism. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter is one of the most often repeated paradoxes of the twentieth century when people are talking about geo-political realities. If we have to start with that as an accepted reality are we ever going to be able to come up with a definitive definition of terrorism?

Was the U. N. on the right track in trying to define it by the activities carried out by a group in attempting to achieve it's goals, or is their an actual philosophical difference between those who are freedom fighters and those who are terrorists? Just because we support their cause, the Africa National Congress and Nelson Mandela for instance were declared a terrorist organization by the government of South Africa but they had worldwide support. Does that make them right?

Sentiment is a dangerous thing and can cause a person to lose track of the reality of who or what it is they are condoning. Back in 1980 there was a group Irish Republic Army prisoners who went on a hunger strike because they wanted to be political prisoners and not treated like criminals. There was a lot of popular support for them both at home in Ireland and abroad in North America (where it really counted of course because the happy Irishman Reagan was president of the United States). But a few years later the pendulum swung against them when they began their bombing campaign again and blew up a car bomb in a public square killing numerous people for apparently no other reason than to show that they could still get away with it whenever and however they wanted.

The I.R.A. and other groups like them claimed to have fought for freedom but they always seemed more than willing to deny others their freedom when it suited their needs. Denying others the ability to move about at will because you might be waiting to blow them up for no other reason except that they are a different religion then you don't sound like fighting for freedom to me.

It sounds more like using innocents to blackmail governments into doing what you want, or to sap the morale of the public so much they will pressure their government into caving. This was much the same tactic used in World War Two by both sides to justify their bombing of civilian targets; destroying the morale of a nation's citizens in the hopes of speeding up the war's conclusion.

If that isn't an example of using the citizens of a country to coerce its government into making a decision, I don’t know what is. But at the time most political leaders and public fully endorsed the policy. In fact bombing raids are still carried out where we know that civilians could be at risk, but we consider that acceptable because we are not directly targeting them.

The real problem with trying to define terrorism by its actions, motivations, or the composition of the group doing the deed, is the fact once we start looking too close the case can be made for almost any act of violence or warfare against another people be called terrorism. If one country chooses to attack another country, no matter how noble or just their actions might seem they are still going to be committing acts of violent aggression against another group of human beings.

I'm not saying that I'm naïve enough to believe that there are not times when the only course of action is to take up arms, but I don't believe that we can differentiate between acts of violence by labelling them with words that denote one as being better than another. Blowing up a civilian aircraft is despicable and cowardly and is the action of people who have no regard for human life.

But why is it considered more of an affront then mobilizing thousands of people and pieces of equipment with the intent of taking life and destroying property? Just because one lays claim to the reigns of power in a country does that give you some sort of exemption from being responsible for the deaths of people? We say that terrorism are acts of violence which have no military objective, whose only purpose is to kill and spread fear as if somehow having a military objective makes killing acceptable.

Perhaps the reason we struggle to define, or differentiate between terrorism and other forms of violence is that too many of the justifications used by groups we refer to as terrorist sound far too similar to the ones utilized by everybody else. How can we obtain moral high ground if we let terrorists have the same reasons we have for utilizing violence as a means of problem resolution?

When the judge in Ontario struck down the law which would allow someone to be defined as a terrorist if he committed a crime motivated by his religious convictions he was only bringing Canada into line with rest of the world. We still have laws on the books that will allow us to lay charges against individuals as terrorists, but those same charges could have been laid without any special provision made to the criminal code of Canada.

In fact, by giving these acts the appellant terrorist aren't you also giving them what they want by making them out to be some sort of hero instead of being a common criminal? Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to sentencing a person for an act or an attempted act of violence and could put a person away for a good long time even without calling them a terrorist.

Whether I like it or not is irrelevant, but our society has two types of violence, authorized and un-authorized, there's no point in beating about the bush and trying to qualify that any further. We are never going to be able to come up with definitions of terrorism that will not in some ways paint us with same brush. It doesn't matter to the person who is killed whether it was a terrorist bullet that took their life or that of a soldier: dead is dead and there's nothing you can do about it after the fact.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Donnie Marler

    I’m not saying that I’m naïve enough to believe that there are not times when the only course of action is to take up arms, but I don’t believe that we can differentiate between acts of violence by labelling them with words that denote one as being better than another. Blowing up a civilian aircraft is despicable and cowardly and is the action of people who have no regard for human life.
    But why is it considered more of an affront then mobilizing thousands of people and pieces of equipment with the intent of taking life and destroying property?

    I’m sorry, this just left me shaking my head, Richard. I know what you’re trying to say in your article but this simply blew me away.
    Do you honestly not see a difference between an army conducting combat operations under the authorization of it’s civilian leadership and a terrorist blowing up an airplane?
    Yes, I realize dead is dead, thus the end result is the same. However, one is done under the laws of a nation and should be a last resort after all diplomatic channels are exhausted. The other is mass murder as a political statement.

    I’m having difficulty accepting the logic of this statement, Richard.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I agree with Donnie 100%…

    And, with statements like these,“We are never going to be able to come up with definitions of terrorism that will not in some ways paint us with [the] same brush.”
    It truly shows that its really up to what propaganda you subscribe to and the limitations of each individuals p.o.v. from their imperfect finite minds as to what is definitley right or wrong. It also shows that this debate will far surpass my lifetime..

  • Bob Jones

    The deliberate killing of un-armed, non-uniformed citizens is terrorism.

    Now, is it hard to prove it is deliberate? Not really, do American Soldiers target Boing 747s? No. Do they choose to launch attacks on civilian workplaces? No. Now Osama Bin Laden did both of those. Now, if you are being semantic – attacking The Pentagon might be a war movement and not a terrorist one because it contains armed and uniformed workers of the government – but he still used a civilian plain to do it.

    It isn’t hard to draw clear lines between terrorist movements and war movements, if OBL doesn’t want to believe that and continue to brainwash Muslims (and others) that we are the terrorists, who cares? We know who is the terrorist and the law should match that.

    There is no need for freedom fighters in the US, a democratic country – now Iraq is a psuedo-democracy so maybe there is an excuse for “freedom fighting” (although I doubt they are fighting for freedom).


    This might not make any difference to anyone, but I could compare and contrast a few actions organized, approved and conducted by terrorists versus those approved for US Soldiers. I can’t go into specific details on Rules of Engagement, but you can read about restrictions we are under in Iraq in a lot of newspaper reporting.

    Terrorists: Hide among civilian populace to conduct attacks against Iraqi security forces and US Military personnel; use any and all means to cause casualties. Collateral damage is acceptable; terrorists will blame US forces in any case.

    US Military: Restrict gunfire to only certain targets and only if no civilians are in areas; with minimum necessary force .

    Terrorists: Murder or threaten any citizens, especially Iraqi security force members, who might be aiding US military, or otherwise impeded the terrorists freedom of movement and operation.

    US Military: Try to build contacts amongst local populace; encourage their cooperation with Iraqi Security forces; minimize impact of military operations on civilians.

    Terrorists: Encourage children to observe and report of US military activity; carry contraband, including explosives and weapons.

    US Military: Build schools and infrastructure; pass out school supplies and soccer balls to kids.

    As an beer and pretzels discussion, moral relativity is all fine and well. Personally, I find it a bit insulting that anyone who considers themselves informed enough to have an opinion can’t tell the difference between a terrorist and a soldier.

    Let me know the day you see terrorists holding their own accountable for executing hostages.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Whar SFC SKI said: Replace Israel with America, and for the most part I go along.

    Side note to SFC SKI: Armies have been ordered to do illegal things – i.e. expelling the citizens of their own countries from their homes for NO GOOD REASON other than keeping the prime mnister’s son out of jail. That is why I say, “for the most part”.

  • All good points, but going back to the article, I have to agree with the Canadian courts that including religious motivation in the definition of terrorism is just crazy.



    Shark smiles as SFC Ski hurls massive Truth Bomb into naive Canadian’s lap.


    B.Jones: “The deliberate killing of un-armed, non-uniformed citizens is terrorism.”

    Shark grins as B.Jones cuts through “intellectual” relativist rhetorical ponderings and plants definitive Truth Bomb under naive Canadian’s feather bed.

  • troll

    what a bunch of crap…

    terrorism is that which terrorizes and terrorists come in all shapes from the wacko rapist to the suicide bomber on up to the man who ordered ‘shock and awe’

    and a slightly different tack – please list the major conflicts in which civilians have not ended up bloodied pawns

  • troll

    don’t forget to knock one back for ol’ St Marcellus today – his feast day – and spend a moment contemplating objections to violence based on conscience

  • Oh ! GOD please stop these attacks and please tell to the our country enemies that how we can live happily life. On 26th Dec

    2008 The terror attacks began between 9 pm and 9.15 pm with indiscriminate firing and bomb blasts and we lose the 100 people’s life. Is this GOD’ s nature we have no right to insult GOD’ s nature.