The term terrorism is as difficult to define as the action itself and has been used by governments, academics, and even the media to refer to very different phenomena, with very little similarity. This term has been used differently by different people to refer to warfare between states, oppression of citizens by their own state, or the violence directed towards states by certain extremist groups. Over the years, the term terrorism has however failed to achieve any broadly accepted definition and it has become just another common word that people generally use; to define a wide range of unpleasant phenomena with little effort being made to explain what in reality can be defined as terroristic behavior. Terrorism therefore continues to attract very different meanings depending on the person or people defining it.
Common elements of most definitions of terrorism
Proposed official definitions of terrorism are quite similar. In 1986, the US vice president’s task force coined a definition of terrorism that defined it as unlawful use of violence, directed towards people or property with the motive of enforcing certain social or political objectives. Another official definition from the republic of Germany constitution describes terrorism as an enduring struggle that is primarily conducted to achieve certain political goals either by assaulting other people or their property through criminal acts or any other forms of violence which precede such criminal acts. The British legislature also defines terrorism, describing it as any politically instigated violence that causes fear and terror to the public or a section of it (Chaliand, Blin, Schneinder, Pulver & Browner, 2007, p.14).
All these official definitions of terrorism have certain common elements namely; political objectives, use of violence, and the intent to cause fear or terror in the targeted population. Although very diverse, academic definitions also contain these elements. But such definitions have been accused of being too broad and failing to give any concrete and useful definition of terrorism. They also fail to give a clear distinction between terrorism, conventional war or even guerilla warfare which are equally violent and politically instigated (Chaliand, Blin, Schneinder, Pulver & Browner, 2007, p.15).
There is a lot of a debatable criterion surrounding terrorism. Participants in a terrorist act or those affected by a particular incident of terrorism for example, will interpret a terrorist attack differently, giving rise to very biased spins. Classifying a movement or group as terrorists or freedom fighters also depends on individual perspective. One person’s terrorist could be another’s freedom fighter. Members of those organizations classified as politically violent also rarely accept the label of terrorists and instead adopt such liberation language as democracy, national identity, liberation, or religious fervor.
To their supporters, they are freedom fighters, but to the governments under whose territory they are operating, they are terrorists and one person’s champion could therefore be his opponent’s terrorist. Many governments and violent groups also embrace terrorist methods and extremist beliefs as logical and necessary tools for acquiring freedom and maintaining order. Opponents of political violence however reject every justification for the use of terrorist methods and argue that such methods are morally un-proportional to the desired political environment. Ideologies used by terrorist organizations to justify their behavior and beliefs by promising social, economic or political liberation can be dangerous. This is because such ideologies give no room for deviation and ignore any form of criticism (Martin, 2006, p.45, 51-55).
Just war theory – jus ad bellum, jus in bello and the US invasion of Iraq
In the history of mankind, military force has always been regarded as morally legitimate when used to deter aggression or in defense of vital interests. As a result, various strategists and theologians have developed the just-war theory; a moral theory that allows the use of military force but specifies the particular time when a state should resort to war, and also specifies how such war should be carried out. There are two elements of the just war theory, jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Jus ad bellum outlines the conditions that justify the use of military force while jus in bello outlines how a war can be conducted in an ethical manner. Violent force can only be justified if all the criteria of jus ad bellum have been met. If a war must be fought, the authority behind it must be right and must be using the right intention for war. There must be reasonable hope, military force must be proportional and the war must be a last resort. Jus in bello which refers to justice in war, prohibits the use of indiscriminate violence or acts of vengeance. Wars are normally fought with the intention of achieving a more peaceful state and just wars are therefore limited wars. Destruction through military force must balance well with perceived goals (Amstutz, 2005, p.33-34, 110-112).
By invading Iraq, the US government therefore violated the UN Charter’s basic rules that require all countries to exhaust every peaceful means of achieving global security before resulting to military action. The US accused the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein of having connections to Al Qaeda and subsequent 9/11 attacks on US soil; accusations which have apparently been proved as unfounded. America was trying to introduce regime-changing interventions by use of military force and if allowed, such interventions could become an acceptable norm. This is in violation of the UN charter and international law consensus that brings together world public opinion and majority state views. The UN charter also states that use of force for self-defense should only take place if there is an imminent or actual attack. By attacking Iraq, the US therefore failed to adhere to its commitment to this charter. This invasion also caused grave damage to international legal constraints and ethical norms which the US claims to adhere to (Dolan, 2005, p.60, 98).
Controlling terrorism remains one of the most difficult undertakings that the international community can achieve; hard to measure and also difficult to attain. Despite all the misconceptions however, all the people of the world who love peace must be committed to eradicating this ill from within their societies. Even with rules governing the use of violence and military force, there is a looming fear that if terrorist groups are allowed to justify their actions, the ideologies controlling them could turn fatal especially in this age of nuclear technology.
Amstutz, M. (2005). International ethics: Concepts, theories, and cases in global politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Dolan, C. (2005). In war we trust: The Bush doctrine and the pursuit of just war. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Chaliand, G., Blin A., Schneider E., Pulver K. and Browner J. (2006). The history of terrorism: From antiquity to Al Qaeda. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Martin, G. (2006). Undertaking terrorism: Challenges, perspectives, and issues. Seminole, FA: SAGE.