Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Terrorism

Knowledge depends on classification. Unless one can define terms accurately, how can one analyze situations or convey information? The horrible event at Fort Hood Texas seems to be raising a debate as to whether it was terrorism. Lets think a bit about that classification.

Terrorism is the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion. At present, there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for an ideological goal (as opposed to a lone attack), and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants.
Terror is defined as intense, overpowering fear. I suggest that terrorism must imply intent. A driver who loses control of his vehicle threatening other drivers might inspire terror in those drivers and their passengers, but without intent to cause terror would not be seen as a terrorist. So too, someone who was considered too mentally ill to properly evaluate the probable impact of his/her actions would not be seen as a terrorist even if those actions result in terror.

The definition implies not only that a terrorist must deliberately take action likely to cause terror, but must do for a purpose. Someone creating terror by actions taken under a compulsion would not be a terrorist.

Our response to terrorism should depend on the scale of the terrorist activity:
  • One presumes that a single person was responsible for the anthrax scare in the United States, and that is a limited threat
  • Al Qaeda is seen as a terrorist conspiracy responsible for 9/11 and was a greater threat than an isolated individual
  • Currently there seems to be a loosely associated network of individuals and groups, often inspired by Al Qaeda, which undertake independent terrorist acts
  • Nazi Germany illustrates the possibility of terrorism by a nation state in its repression of opposition parties domestically and in occupied territories.
I suggest that American response to an action inducing terror should be modulated according to these factors. The response to 9/11 by the Bush administration, in retrospect, seems clearly to have been excessive, overestimating the threat posed by Al Qaeda and misunderstanding the impact of the responses it made to the threat it perceived.

In considering the event at Fort Hood, I would first question whether the killer understood his actions and whether he was acting under some irresistible compulsion (impulse). If not, it would seem important to understand as far as possible his purposes for those actions. If his actions were indeed intended to create terror to further some objective, it would be useful to know what that purpose might be, and to identify the institutional structure that supported his terrorism.

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