Research Paper: Terrorism

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m. Federal Bureau of Investigation -- 28 C.F.R. §0.85

"[Terrorism is] [t]he 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."[footnoteRef:17] [17: (The Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005).]

3. Two Approaches to the Complexity of Terrorism Definitions

As nations struggle to define terrorism in order to target and combat it, the conflicting viewpoints and interests become obvious in the sheer number of their definitions, all focusing on a single word: terrorism. Even within the United States, separate governmental departments rely on separate definitions. In the face of these burgeoning and changing definitions, scholars have attempted to find a common ground from which we might globally define terrorism. While the search for common ground is still extremely difficult, some scholars have made significant inroads.

Susan Tiefenbrun, a lawyer and Director of "The Center for Global Legal Studies," uses a formal, legalistic approach called the "Semiotic Approach." According to Teifenbrun, Semiotics is the "science of signs" which looks for "hidden meanings, connotations and denotations" in an effort to unify apparently disparate definitions.[footnoteRef:18] Her first step in this approach is a return to a legal basic: "Black's Law Dictionary." This widely-used legal staple defines "Terrorism" as "The use or threat of violence to intimidate or cause panic, esp. As a means of affecting political conduct."[footnoteRef:19] From that very simple definition, Tiefenbrun then examined many definitions of terrorism and defined five fundamental elements of terrorism: [18: (Tiefenbrun, 2003, p. 359).] [19: (Ibid., p. 361)]

a. "The perpetration of violence by whatever means;

b. The targeting of innocent civilians;

c. With the intent to cause violence or with wanton disregard for its consequences;

d. For the purpose of causing fear, coercing or intimidating an enemy;

e. In order to achieve some political, military, ethnic, ideological, or religious goal."[footnoteRef:20] [20: (Ibid., p. 362).]

Using Tiefenbrun's approach, we can examine each element against the backdrop of multiple definitions. Examining the first element, Teifenbrun found that while "violence" is not specifically mentioned in some definitions, it is certainly at least an implied element of all. Tiefenbrun also explores the meaning of violence, concluding that it is not confined to physical acts or injuries; rather, "Violence has many forms and degrees of severity. However, an act is violent only if it causes harm to persons and things. Violence in any form can inspire terror in its victims and in those indirectly affected by the violence."[footnoteRef:21] The second element, the targeting of "innocent civilians," is more problematic in an attempt to reach a global definition: who is an innocent civilian? How many must be killed to constitute terrorism? Does war reduce the killing of innocent victims to mere collateral damage? As Tiefenbrun states, unanswered questions such as these and others militate against a global definition of terrorism.[footnoteRef:22] The third element's "wanton disregard" is easier to grasp, according to Tiefenbrun, because criminal courts have long-defined the required mental state for criminal activity. Tiefenbrun's explanation seems sparse and inadequate in this regard, as she makes no reference to a broad-based agreement on the element of "wanton disregard" across global legal systems. Tiefenbrun states that the fourth element's use of "fear" is problematic because it is a psychological condition rather than a legal element; meanwhile, "coercion" and "intimidation" have already been defined by courts. Again, Tiefenbrun's explanation seems inadequate, as she fails to show global unity about the meanings of "coercion" and intimidation. According to Teifenbrun, the fifth element's, "political, ethnic, ideological, or religious" goals are common implied elements of definitions but the addition of "military goal" creates difficulty because its inclusion in a global definition would require people in war to avoid using tactics normally used in war, even a civil war of "liberation," but condemned in peacetime as "terrorism."[footnoteRef:23] Examining the conflicting interests and paradoxes of terrorism's definitions, Tiefenbrun concludes that the five defined elements are legitimate and that a global definition is difficult but not impossible. She asserts that despite competing interests, nations can weigh the relative importance of their competing interests, much as judges do when reaching a decision.[footnoteRef:24] Though Tiefenbrun seems to take the universality of some definition elements for granted, her appeal to weigh interests is solidly based. [21: (Ibid., p. 364).] [22: (Ibid.)] [23: (Ibid.)] [24: (Ibid., p 401)]

Another approach to developing a unified definition of terrorism is espoused by Pierre Tristam, a journalist who is both a native of Beirut, Lebanon and a naturalized U.S. citizen, educated in American schools. Tristam contends that defining terrorism is "contentious" only from those who wish to hide from the definition's implications.[footnoteRef:25] Quoting Robert Fisk, a fellow journalist, Tristam maintains that "terrorism" no longer means terrorism: "It is not a definition. It is a political contrivance. 'Terrorists' are those who use violence against the side that is using the word."[footnoteRef:26] Tristam pointedly highlights American acts that could be construed as "terrorism" by the victims: "The Marines' massacre of civilians at Haditha in Iraq, the American military's deliberate bombing of civilian targets in Vietnam, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (neither of which had military value), the British and American razing of European cities in World War II."[footnoteRef:27] Referring to these acts as "State terror," Tristam argues that Western apologists, in particular, ease our consciences about those acts by saying that there are no "innocent civilians" in "total war."[footnoteRef:28] Attacking that tendency, Tristam demands an honest self-assessment from each nation regarding the "terrorist" methods it employs and excuses, then he urges all nations -- particularly Western nations - to shed the "political contrivance" in defining terrorism, acknowledge our own culpability and arrive at this simple definition: "Violent acts directed primarily at civilian targets, or that produce primarily civilian casualties, are acts of terrorism. So are violent acts directed at any imprisoned individual, soldiers or guerillas included - especially those held illegally, without charge, which makes Guantanamo's detainees hostages, not prisoners."[footnoteRef:29] Tristam's biting indictment of competing nations' supposed cognitive difficulties with defining "terrorism" is a refreshing, albeit edgy, approach that does seem to dispel considerable political fog. [25: (Tristam, 2007, pp. 1-2).] [26: (Ibid.)] [27: (Ibid.)] [28: (Ibid.)] [29: (Ibid.)]

4. Conclusion

Reviewing the many definitions of "terrorism" is an abject lesson in patience. The definitions become increasingly complex as nations struggle to define "terrorism" in ways that pinpoint it without underscoring their own culpability. Tiefenbrun's understandably legalistic approach to deciphering these definitions manages to deduce five common aspects: the perpetration of violence by whatever means; the targeting of innocent civilians; with the intent to cause violence or with wanton disregard for its consequences; for the purpose of causing fear, coercing or intimidating an enemy; in order to achieve some political, military, ethnic, ideological, or religious goal. Acknowledging the problematic inclusion of some aspects, Tiefenbrun nevertheless maintains that a meaningful consensus definition is possible if nations' competing interests are judiciously weighed. Tristam seems to espouse the same approach but with a more stinging, impatient rebuke, particularly of Western acts that could be defined as "terrorism."

In sum, Tiefenbrun and Tristam both argue for a balance of competing interests. Tiefenbrun's approach is the more formal, legalistic Semiotic approach to the elements of a workable definition. Meanwhile, Tristam's approach is confrontational, dismissing the supposed "difficulty" of reaching common ground and attributing that difficulty to sheer self-interest. Using either approach, the path to a global definition appears to lie along a realistic balance of competing interests.

Works Cited

Arab Convention on Terrorism. (2009, June 18). Document: Arab Convention on Terrorism, 1998. Retrieved from Al-Bab Web site:

Department of Justice Canada. (2008, April 1). The Anti-Terrorism Act. Retrieved from Department of Justice Canada Web site:

Office of the Law Revision Counsel, U.S. House of Representatives. (2011, January 7). U.S. Code. Retrieved from Web site:

The Council of the European Union. (2002, June 13). Official Journal of the European Communities | (Acts adopted pursuant to Title VI of the Treaty on European Union) | Council Framework Decision of 13 June 2002 on Combating Terrorism | (2002/475/JHA). Retrieved from Web site:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2005). FBI - Terrorism 2002/2005. Retrieved from Web site:

The National Archives. (2000). Terrorism Act 2000. Retrieved from Web site:

Tiefenbrun, S. (2003). A Semiotic Approach to a Legal Definition of Terrorism. ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law, Vol. 9:358, 358-402.

Tristam, P. (2007). What is Terrorism? Toward a Clear-eyed Definition of Terrorism -- Without Prejudice. Retrieved from Web site:

U.S. Army. (2001). U.S. Army Counterterrorism Manual. Washington, DC: U.S. Army.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2010). Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2011). What is the U.S.A. Patriot Web. Retrieved from Web site:

U.S. Department of State. (2000). (A) Introduction. Retrieved from Web site:

United Nations General Assembly. (2010). Resolutions: General Assembly (GA): 49th Session: United Nations (UN).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Terrorism .  (2011, December 31).  Retrieved April 18, 2019, from

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"Terrorism ."  31 December 2011.  Web.  18 April 2019. <>.

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"Terrorism ."  December 31, 2011.  Accessed April 18, 2019.