Perspectives on the Application of Terrorism as a Useful Term: Through the Lens of the West and Its Self-Appointed ‘Terrorists’

Taylor Wilson
Researcher on security and terrorism matters, as well as anthropology.

Terrorism is a term that instils confusion among domestic and international governments, agencies, and non-governmental organisations. What is it? Who are they? What is the modus operandi? These variables beg the question of whether terrorism itself is still a useful term to describe acts of non-sanctioned violence? Since the Russian conceptualisation of ‘propaganda by the deed’, terrorism has been plagued by a series of unknowns. This essay will analyse arguments for and against the continued use of the term- through the lens of the West and the terrorists themselves. As a result, multiple perspectives will be analysed and clarified to assess whether terrorism should remain in the popular terminology of the 21st century or whether it has surpassed its relevancy as a descriptive term.

Terrorism is an undefined and loose term applied to various groups and people who commit specific acts of violence against non-combatants (Schmid, 2004). Herein rises the principal issue of defining terrorism- what’ acts of violence are considered legitimate reactions to aggression and what causes will be championed as reactions to authoritarianism. This leads to the essential cliche when discussing terrorism- “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” (Ganor, 2002). As a result, the word terrorism has been used to significant political effect, being wielded by different organisations and groups over time to shape the public perception of who may constitute a terrorist (Skorpen Wikan, 2018).

While there are a variety of conflicting arguments and confusion surrounding the definition of the word, Schmid’s opinion on what terrorism is composed of will be noted as one of the foundations for assessing what terrorism is. Schmid and Jongman define terrorism as the following:

Understanding what terrorism is through Schmids’ definition highlights two key concepts- that terrorism as a physical force is generally exerted upon non-combatants and that they also seek to subversive and infiltrate the public psyche to extend their power. Witbeck proposes a less academic response to the term- however, one that perhaps has the broadest application across all domestic and international organisations, groups, and politics: “perhaps the only honest and globally workable definition of terrorism is an explicitly subjective one – ‘violence I don’t support’”(Witbeck, 2004).”Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby- in contrast to assassination- the direct targets of violence are not the main targets…threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisation), (imperilled) victims and main targets are used to manipulate the main target…turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion or propaganda is primarily sought” (Schmid and Jongman, 1988).

When approached from a legal perspective, the definition of terrorism falls short of its aim. When analysing the Australian definition of terrorism, it was considered in Thomas V Mowbray that the language put forth by Part 5.3 of the Australian “Criminal Code Act 1955 (Cth) (Criminal Code) by Schedule 1 to the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 was “too vague for judicial interpretation and thus incompatible with the exercise of judicial power and contrary to the separation of powers inherent within the structure of the Australian Constitution” (Hardy and Williams, 2013). Therefore, a ramification of this is the inability to create a singular brief as to what constitutes an illegal terrorist action. It thus prevents prosecution- or aids it- in conflicting cases. Such definitions and amendments are also a result of a post 9/11 world and therefore are tailored to previous public rhetoric on what terrorism looks like.

The confusion and inability to pinpoint what terrorism make it privy to use by anyone- from ISIS calling the United States terrorists to anarchists exposing state-supported terrorist acts overseas. This begs the question- can a term that can be applied to anyone through significant overuse fail to retain its original value?

To assess whether terrorism has indeed outlived its use-by date, the term must be considered through the West’s lens of those deemed ‘terrorists’. This is summarised in ‘The Challenges of Conceptualising Terrorism’ that terrorism has various meanings in its circles (Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004). Terrorism focuses on the ability to create a sense of fear and prosecution against a primarily civilian population- inspiring connotations to the term without an actual physical act of violence occurring. For the terrorist, this is perhaps as useful as actually launching an attack, as it affects the public psyche in much the same way. Schmid and Jongman summarise this:

“Many extremists might often not be able to produce a prolonged terror effect by unexpected, dramatic acts of violence; however, the evocation of terror is their intent is sufficient to justify placing them in the same category as those who succeed. (Schmid and Jongman 1988)”.

The term terrorism is a handy tool for those that wield it in such a manner. They are able to shape the word against their chosen enemy and affect public reaction and opinion through mere utterance. This has been noted in increasing media coverage and fanaticism of the term, only propagating the terrorist’s aim further. Altheide argues that the media works upon a basis of fear to fulfil its own goals independently of terrorist purposes and is henceforth constructed to appear threatening to the everyday American (Altheide, 2017). This is not lost on terrorist organisations through their increased use of social media and networking via videos and statements readily available to mainstream institutions, such as the ISIS beheading videos or campaign messages. This helps construct a public opinion and create connotations with the word ‘terrorist’ to purport the feat further and create overaction by domestic and international security firms.

The context in which terrorism exists remains convoluted, as captured by the variance in opinions expressed between academics, politicians, and legal faculties. For terrorists, it seems as though the word itself sparks connotations that make it useful. This is evident in the increasing anxiety expressed in the Western world- particularly America- wherein “60% of Americans feel that it is very or somewhat likely that a terrorist attack will occur in the United States shortly; this percentage is up from 38% in 2011” (Haner et al., 2019). Furthermore, the spike in anxiety appears to be from emotionally laden media and political campaigns, which heavily imply the term terrorist to incite such a response. This was noted by various groups across the board- from right-wing domestic terrorists and their idea of an incoming ‘race war’ to that of ISIS and overseas groups. The Global Terrorism Index of 2020 supports this theory, as deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year- falling to 15.5% (Global Terrorism Index, 2020).

The term terrorism intrinsically inspires fear from the very etymological roots of the word, which “involves the creation of terror, fear and alarm” (Kapitan, 2004). The term may provoke a fear response as a byproduct (Kapitan, 2004). This plays directly into the hands of the terrorist and proves its usefulness and relevance in modern terminology from the perspective of such groups. There also remains the ‘war of words’ upon labelling one a terrorist- resulting in a turnaround use of the term against the original perpetrators. This correlates with another layer of usefulness for inspiring terrorist groups to play upon the confusion between terrorism and justified rebellion. Of course, by their definitions, this labelling of the West as terrorists is not entirely uncalled for as they are not exempt from such atrocities. From the U.S bombing of Tripoli in 1986 or the Iraqi/Iranian missile strikes in the mid-’80s, states may often fall into the same category as terrorists (Kapitan, 2004). For organisations that wish to frame the conversation, these actions and subsequent definitional failure of the word terrorism give them an excellent platform to create a counter.

Despite the usefulness of the word in terrorist circles, the term may be rendered all but useless when applied to the Western world. The concept of terrorism has become increasingly oversaturated in everyday life- more often than not used as a justification for bias against a particular group or faucet of political movement considered distasteful by the government of the day. The continued use of the term with little consideration of what definition may be applied continues to muddy the water surrounding what counts as a terrorist act. The issue is becoming so profound in media and political circles that some scholars contend that we are better off moving away from using the term to avoid an illusion of meaning ‘invariance’ (Medina, 2019).

The usefulness of the word seems to fall short in the Western world due to the innate definitional problem- while in terrorist groups, the functionality relies on the attached rhetoric which comes from the word- opposed to legislative meaning. This is highlighted through states’ own actions both domestically and internationally- with “the number of innocent victims killed or seriously harmed as a result of terrorism by nonstate agents pales in comparison with the millions of innocent victims that have been and are still being killed or seriously harmed by what one could describe as state-sponsored political violence” (Medina, 2019).

For example, one may consider the following scenario. An arrest may be synonymous with an act of hostage-taking- an action normally reserved for terrorist activity. In this instance, it is an action performed by the state and ‘legitimate’ arms of power, and therefore not considered as such- but under many definitions of terrorism, it still constitutes as such. Even when applying Schmid’s definition, one can see the correlation between both actions- violence against non-combatants with the intent to create fear. Indeed, arrests and modern policing are tactics used to create discontent in the population and prevent others from offending. This creates confusion when assessing the meaning of the word and removes all meaningful sense as most states and organisations can therefore be accused of committing acts of terrorism. It would be hypocritical to consider one group a terrorist organisation and one not under such scrutiny, rendering the word useless.

Dr Akhtar also reinforces the hypocrisy surrounding the use of the word terrorism and how it remains problematic.

 “For one thing, we do not talk about the politically motivated murder of Iraqis in terms of terrorism, just as we tend to focus on ‘terrorism of the poor without acknowledging that the more privileged classes can be victims of the very same acts of ‘terrorism’. Moreover, since all labels of this sort are loaded with political agendas, the label of terrorist, he conceded, is not a good psychoanalytic term “(Siassi and Akhtar, 2006).

This leads to a hefty inequality of the law to be able to scrutinise and understand circumstances around the formation of a ‘terrorist’- instead labels them as such when they may indeed be a byproduct of the state’s own actions against them.

The term ‘terrorism’ fails to be a useful descriptor of actual violence due to the definitional problem and is therefore redundant in the Western vocabulary. While it may prove helpful in terms of creating a media cacophony, its practical use becomes very limited as a result. This has been ascertained since the 1980s- and the problem has only been expounded upon since. Jenkins provides an insight into this theory, noting that:

“terrorism has recently become a fad word used promiscuously and often applied to a variety of acts of violence which are not strictly terrorism by definition…some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents, while anti-government extremists frequently claim to be the victims of government terror” (Jenkins, 1980).

This results in a sort of semantic satiation, in which the actual meaning of the phrase is lost among the repetition of the statement- pushing it to irrelevancy.

It is by combining the Western perspective and the terrorist rhetoric that we arrive at a bizarre juxtaposition in the usefulness of the word terrorism in conventional nomenclature. From the perspective of those deemed ‘terrorists’ by the West, it provides a label that they can manipulate into every nook and cranny of everyday life to create a fear response. Its use in the West, however, is becoming limited due to overuse and its inability to be constrained effectively.

These factors cause further disruption in defining what may constitute a terrorist act or who a terrorist might be. When states apply further introspection to themselves, they may find that they simply are justified users of terrorist tactics simply because they have a legitimate claim to force through statehood. The term ‘terrorist’ is henceforth useless due to its broad spectrum of uses. The inability to discern what particular mode of violence is used- from guerilla fighting to covert operations- means that there is no set rule in which to persecute those accused of terrorism hypocrisy on the part of the state.

From the analysis of both perspectives presented in this essay, it is clear that there is limited use of the word terrorist, particularly considering the Western use of the word. Its usefulness depends entirely on the user, and surprisingly it retains more power and meaning in the hands of ‘terrorists’ than Western institutions. Terrorist organisations can capitalise on the rhetoric surrounding the word and thus create negative connotations and fear, which expands their soft power through various modes of media. The results of the over-saturation of terrorism are already being felt in mainstream media channels- something that may not be beneficial for the terrorists profiting off the negative connotations of the word. As of 2019, the BBC has ceased the use of the word ‘terrorism’ when reporting on violent activity, changing its lexicon to avoid ‘value judgment’ due to the vacuum of understanding when it comes to defining the phrase (The Times of Israel, 2021). 

Suppose the West chooses to disband the usefulness and use of the word ‘terrorism’ as a descriptive actor of violence. In that case, they find it distasteful, so to fade the word’s usefulness for the terrorists themselves. Without the importance placed on the word through the Western psyche, the less impact it has when wielded by organisations who wish to inspire fear. Additionally, this would require the West to disband its complex understanding of ‘legitimate violence’ and illegitimate violence and rework its principal knowledge of security threats. This act seems far from being considered by policymakers and politicians. They themselves may occasionally reap the benefits of the fear instilled by the word terrorism. In removing the essence of fear attached to the word, politicians risk losing a pivotal point of many campaigns- much like the predecessor to terrorism- communism. Even this limited use has a functional flaw, however, with the ‘age of information’ inspiring further critical thought of the use of the word in the West- particularly when used at the mercy of campaigners. The media circus surrounding the word has also resulted in negative connotations for mostly Muslim populations living in respective Western countries due to the nature of the term being mostly polarised in a post-September 11 world. There continues to be an alienation of certain parts of the community under the formulated idea of ‘terrorist’, which further proves its uselessness as a colloquial term without definition in Western society. This bias only creates displacement and imbalance- creating a foundational argument for ‘terrorist’ ideas to take hold domestically and overseas as a reaction.

So what is the result if the term ‘terrorist’ ceases to exist as a proper word in the 21st-century lexicon? There is no honest answer or research which can accurately predict such. While it is folly to assume that the word will entirely become irrelevant, it may see the same fate as the term ‘communism’. After McCarthyism and the rise of the second ‘Red Scare’ of the Cold War, the peak of communist hysteria subsided, and the term fell wayward from the public eye. While still generally used to describe certain governments or schools of political thought- it was no longer the ‘be all and end all’ to overthrow the West. It is not folly to think this may be the same fate for ‘terrorism’. While still an adept descriptor of violence, it may be regaled to conversational use instead of a benchmark for policymaking. Groups labelled as ‘terrorists’ may fall to another name- but perhaps one not so prominent to inflictions placed upon them by the labeller themselves.

The usefulness of ‘terrorism’ continues to be scrutinised- but its relevance depends on which faction you ask. For the West, it appears that without a stable definition, the term ‘terrorist’ is in its death throes- creating chaos and confusion while alienating certain sects of the community- and being helpful only to those who wish to capitalise on years of existing fear for personal gain. It still proves itself to be a handy tool for organisations who want to play into the terrorist rhetoric- meaning that its usefulness as a word and idea is not entirely irrelevant. This creates a conclusion that is neither here nor there, completely dependent on which lens you apply to the word. Much like everything else to do with the study of terrorism, personal opinion, understanding, and overarching goals tend to mould the idea to the perspective of the person analysing it. As such, the West must decide whether it will stick by the term and continue to surge forward with a word that has all but reached its lifespan; and those determined terrorists will perhaps see a short-lived influence through the simple use of a word- due to its inability to be appropriately applied and connected to a definition.


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