Defining Terrorism - Essay Sample

Paper Type:  Research paper
Pages:  3
Wordcount:  626 Words
Date:  2021-05-26

While the United States has declared war on terrorism, it seems no one is sure what the term means. No single definition of terrorism has been accepted universally. Scholars, security experts, politicians and journalists all use various definitions of this term. While some definitions have to do with how terrorist organizations go about their operations, others focus on their characteristics and motivations. When it comes to fighting terrorism, its definition is crucial in the efforts to join forces and adopt a common ground against it. This essay compares and contrasts the various definitions of terrorism while exploring the similarities and differences.

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Most people are aware of the basic elements of terrorism such as violence, instilling fear in masses, non-combatant targets and political aims. However, coming up with a solid and universally accepted definition has proven to be elusive. For instance, it is not clear whether terrorism must involve physical violence or merely instilling fear is enough. Also, there is no consensus as to whether attacks targeting political leaders, military personnel or property should be considered acts of terror. Even among governmental departments of the United States, various differing definitions are used (Kampf, 2014).

The Department of Defenses definition of terrorism is that it is the premeditated use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear. According to Kampf (2014), this measure is meant to intimidate or coerce either societies or governments into caving in to the perpetrators political or religious goals. The definition by the Department of State holds that acts of terrorism can only be committed by sub-national groups as opposed to the states themselves. They are of the opinion that violent terrorist acts are politically motivated, but do not say anything about instilling fear or spreading it. The Federal Bureau of Investigations definition states that it is the unlawful use of violence and force directed at individuals or property. The aim of this is pressurize a government, the general public or any other segment into complying with the perpetrators social or political objectives. The Department of Homeland Security definition is any act that poses danger to human life or has the potential to cause destruction to critical infrastructure. Such an act is in a violation of US laws and is meant to influence a governments policy through intimidation or threats.

According to Hardy & Williams (2013), the differing definitions of terrorism have led to conflicts among government agencies, especially when it comes to deciding whether or not certain attacks are acts of terror. For instance, the FBI is of the opinion that groups like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) are terrorists. While the ELF is responsible for destroying property worth millions of dollars, it does not engage in violence or hurt people. Following the September 9, 2001 terrorist attacks, there has been more pressure than ever to come up with a single acceptable definition. A possible reason why a universally acceptable definition lacks is because many individuals believe that certain instances call for justified extreme action. For instance, while the US bombed non-combatant targets during the Second World War, not many people refer to it as terrorism. Its justified because the US had been drawn into an armed conflict with aggressor nations.

A difference exists between terrorism and other forms of violence. In addition, choice of target is a crucial factor to consider when deciding if something was an act of terror. All in all, coming up with a definition of terror is a theoretical matter. It is up to academics to work out the ideal set of parameters for the any research they plan to carry out.


Hardy, K., & Williams, G. (2013). What is Terrorism? Assessing Domestic Legal Definitions. UNSW Law Research Paper, (2013-16).

Kampf, Z. (2014). NewsMedia and terrorism: Changing relationship, changing definitions. Sociology Compass, 8(1), 1-9.

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