The definition of terrorism lies in the gray area that exists between crime and war, although experts disagree as to its approximate location. Some professionals who have spent their careers closely following the various competing theories have resigned themselves to the conclusion that terrorism resists classification. According to professor of international politics Colin S. Gray, terrorism results from various causes that defy any clear distinction “between the political and the criminal.”
Some people primarily equate terrorism with war. Noted scholar Noam Chomsky, for one, cites a section of U.S. code that describes terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological.” Chomsky argues that this definition of terrorism is essentially the definition of war: It is something that “is conducted by them against us,” with “them” meaning an enemy.
Other people describe terrorism as an alternative or substitute for war. Thomas Powers, whose viewpoint is included here, argues that terrorism has served to quench Western nations’ propensity for war during the ahistorically long era of peace following World War II. He contends that leftist groups such as Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, and the United States’ less successful Weathermen, by committing a series of bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings, satisfied their nations’ need for war. “Looked at this way,” Powers writes, “terrorism was a symptom of long fermenting furies—a kind of three day drunk by Western nations, addicted to war and violence.” Conversely, Powers maintains, in the Middle East during this same period, terrorism represented the means to avoid completely abandoning existing wars. L. Paul Bremer of Kissinger Associates supports this premise, contending that terrorism made political sense for Middle Eastern nations as “a low-cost, deniable means of continuing their struggle against Israel and its prime supporter, the United States.” Terrorism, according to this perspective, was affordable for these North African nations both militarily and politically, whereas outright war was not.
Others believe that terrorism equals crime. They argue that efforts to combat terrorism must be accompanied by efforts to strip away any perception of political legitimacy for the stated motivations behind terrorist acts. Bremer contends that, in the past, “publicity-savvy terrorists have portrayed themselves as modern Robin Hoods who punished the rich on behalf of the downtrodden” and have fooled many Westerners into supporting their causes. “A terrorist who bombs a building commits arson, which is against the law,” insists Bremer. “A man who takes a hostage is guilty of kidnapping, which is also against the law. And a politically motivated assassination is murder.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Terrorism, to some, is substantially more serious than crime. And by equating crime with terrorism, they argue, experts run the risk of granting criminals a degree of infamy similar to that afforded to terrorists. Journalist Stephen Budiansky regards the October 1995 derailing of an Amtrak passenger train in Arizona, which killed one person and injured more than 100 others, as one such instance. “The eagerness of everyone from the local sheriff to the president of the United States to label the tragedy an act of ‘terrorism,’” he complains, “bespeaks a human foible that too many these days share.” Such labeling, Budiansky continues, paradoxically rewards “thugs, pranksters and nutcases” for committing offenses by giving them an inflated sense of importance. To qualify as terrorism, he contends, an act must “threaten to undermine the foundations of American society,” which the Amtrak derailment, in his opinion, did not do.
Defining terrorism, as the viewpoints collected in this anthology demonstrate, is no easy matter. Urban Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints explores this issue in addition to other topics, including the tension between counterterrorism efforts and democratic ideals, the factors that contribute to the making of a terrorist, the interaction of the media and terrorism, and the degree to which terrorism poses a threat to people living in the United States.