What brings a person to blow himself or herself up in a crowd of people—including babies and children? In that crowd there may even be some who agree with the terrorist’s ideology but are caught in the wrong place. And what determines if the bomber is to be considered a fiend or a hero? What leads such a person to such drastic action? Is there ever any sense or just cause for blowing up a crowded public space or contaminating a public water supply?
A dated dictionary definition might help us begin such discussion. The Encarta World English Dictionary (1999) defines terrorism as “violence or threat of violence, especially bombing, kidnapping, and assassination, carried out for political purposes.” It further defines a terrorist as someone who carries out such violence. Obviously, this definition leaves us needing a bit more.
As to definitions, Wikipedia says, “There is neither an academic nor an international legal consensus regarding the definition of the term terrorism.” We are dealing with a topic so “politically and emotionally charged” that even global humanitarian agencies are reluctant to offer a precise definition. What is terrible to one side may be necessary and justifiable to another.
Wikipedia further explains an obvious difficulty in discussing terrorism.
As Bruce Hoffman has noted, “… terrorism is a pejorative term. It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents, or to those with whom one disagrees and would otherwise prefer to ignore…. Hence the decision to call someone or label some organization ‘terrorist’ becomes necessarily subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathizes with or opposes the person/group/cause concerned. If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violence act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive (or at worst, an ambivalent) light; and it is not terrorism.” Wikipedia article accessed 6Aug’13.
To convey objectivity and possible neutrality some news agencies will use terms such as “militants” or “bombers” rather than “terrorists” to describe those committing such acts of violence.
Despite difficulties and differences of opinion and perspective, many citizens would like to think that violent acts against innocent persons is to be condemned. We would like to see rules of warfare maintained in regards to torture or terrorist attacks on random human beings. It is possible to understand “the other side” and to criticize the actions of one’s own government. Many American and British citizens condemn the bombings of WWII that neglected to bomb train tracks leading to the concentration camps where many Jews and others could have been saved from a brutal death. They even chose to bypass more strategic military targets in favor of mass bombings of Germans in places like Dresden—a firestorm designed not only to destroy vital factories there, but to crush the spirit of the German people. (This is still a controversial issue argued from different perspectives.)
There are also Americans today who are ready to condemn drone attacks carried out in any spirit of retaliation, or which carelessly take innocent civilian life.
But we are left to deal with deadly terrorist strikes. In September, 2001, Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States killed almost 3000 persons and injured another 8 or 9 thousand. The Boko Haram group (or Boko Karam) has been involved in killing mostly Christian Nigerians in recent years, many churches have been bombed or burned repeatedly. The worst attack was the killing of 780 persons in July of 2009 in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria. Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq brought car bombings in August of 2007 killing 520 and injuring 1500. Arson in a theater in Iran (August 1978) killed 477 and injured a dozen more. A Chechen attack on a Russian theater killed 372 (mostly children) and injured 747 more.
Oklahomans have not forgotten the terrorist attack on a federal building killing 169 (including children) and injuring another 675 persons. And the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 will long be remembered, not only for the three killed (plus an officer in its aftermath), but for injuring (with loss of limbs) at least 264—treated at 27 different local hospitals.
So powerful is the threat of international terrorism that nations around the world are collaborating in covert study of threats of deadly violence.
Acts of terror may be designed by those who are clearly demented or those caught up in conspiratorial fears. Sadly, a primary cause of terrorism in our time appears to be religious/cultural tensions. Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians have all been targeted and suffered violence. Israelis and Palestinians both feel angry from violence against them. Worldwide, terrorist attacks from radical Muslims arguably have caused, and continue to pose, the most serious threat of attacks to Western Europeans and North Americans. Nevertheless, extremely diverse groups are behind terrorist attacks globally.
Finally it is important to realize there are fewer terrorist attacks in North America than most other parts of the world, and that Western Europe is less vulnerable to attacks than the Middle East, North Africa, South America and South Asia. A North American has less chance of dying from a terrorist attack than dying from almost any other cause.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What about this article is your most striking impression, criticism or suggestion?
2. Are you ready to define terrorism in an objective way? If so, what definition would you offer? If not, how do you think we can best discuss this topic?
3. What violent acts mentioned in this article affected you the most?
4. Do you personally worry about terrorist acts? What advice would you give others in regards to unexpected violence?
5. How do you think violent disagreements between religious groups can be reduced?
6. How does your faith or moral stance help you deal with terrorism? What do faith, hope and love—or trust and reconciliation have to do with it?
1. Excepting the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), most deaths in wars historically were of combatants. Beginning with WWII in the twentieth century, more civilians than military personnel have been killed. The International Committee of the Red Cross suggests that ten civilians die for every combatant’s death in wars today. accessed 6Aug’13.
2. Governments are using incredible resources to provide security for their citizens. According to The Washington Post “Terrorist attacks and attempted attacks in the United States have become less frequent since the 1970s—though September 11 was a huge exception” and “”Law enforcement officials appear to be getting better at thwarting terrorist attacks—but can’t stop them all.” (“Eight Facts about terrorism in the United States,” accessed 6Aug’13.
3. There are two levels of responses to global terrorism: (1) prevention of attacks and (2) attempting to deal with underlying causes of lethal violence. Much more effort and success seems to have gone into the first than the second.
3. Global religious and political leaders ought to be held more accountable for failures to deal with violence by young and old through social media and all other means. Where the UN fails to take effective action, ordinary people ought to make moral demands on Israel and Palestine, upon Muslims and Christians, on Sunnis and Shiites. Economic and social depravation must be taken into account. Pope Francis is setting an example of such demands.