Why is ‘terrorism’ so hard to define?

By Jenna Barnes

WASHINGTON — If you search for the word “terrorism” on CNN’s website, you’ll get more than 30,000 results. There’s no doubt it’s a hot topic and a major concern worldwide. But what exactly is terrorism? As it turns out, there’s no simple answer to that question.

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines the word as “the unlawful use of force and 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.”

Although it’s generally agreed upon that terrorism is the use of violence to pursue political aims, defining the word gets trickier the broader you try to cast the scope.

People can agree upon its definition in certain places or contexts, but there are too many variables for a universal definition, according to Bill Braniff, executive director National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

The United Nations has been trying to come up with a definition since long before September 11th, 2001, but they still haven’t been able to settle on one. The hold-up comes mainly from Islamic states that want to draw a distinction between acts of terrorism and acts of national resistance against foreign occupation.

Although the word is hard to define politically, it’s also culturally relative, meaning people from different places or cultures often judge the word differently from each other. According to Roger Shuy, professor of Linguistics Emeritus at Georgetown University, the word terrorism almost always implies “otherness.”

“It’s a very ethnocentric term,” he said. “In a sense it’s associated with somebody other than us.”

Some Americans automatically associate terrorism with the Middle East – we are fighting the War on Terror over there, after all – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the West or any other region is exempt from blame.

“Terrorism is a human phenomenon,” Braniff said. “People of every race, culture and creed have used violence to forward their political interests.”

When Braniff studies acts of terrorism, he categorizes them based on agreed-upon criteria of the agreed-upon definition for the particular study he’s working on. In other words, he’s as objective as possible, given the possible unknowns.

“We don’t talk about whether the action was right or wrong or good or bad,” he said.

Others, however, can’t – or don’t – make such objective judgments. That’s because terrorism is a value-laden term with significant emotional implications. And those emotional semantics further complicate the definition.

“At a basic human level, you’re talking about belief systems and violence, and those are really emotionally charged things to talk about,” Braniff said.

Otherwise, objectively, terrorism is a political tactic — plain and simple.

“War is an extension of politics by other means,” Braniff said. “Terrorism is an extension of politics by other means.”

The complications that delay defining terrorism aren’t because of the word itself, but the politics, culture and emotions associated with it.

“Using a different word is not going to change some of those underlying issues, Braniff said.“There’s noting wrong with the word ‘terrorism.’ It’s just that people get really involved in the emotions and politics.”


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