Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How should we define terrorism?

Interestingly, I could not find an illustration of "terrorism" or "terrorist" that did not beg the question asked in this entry. This "terrorist buster" logo is actually from the CIA website!

A friend posted the following data on Facebook:

Terror attacks in Europe 2006-2009:
Total number: 1770
Islamic: 6 (0.34%)
Right Wing Ethno-Nationalist and Separatist: 1596 (90.17%)
Left Wing: 106 (5.99%)
...Other/Not Specified: 62 (3.50%)
Source: Euro Pol

I thought it was interesting and posted it myself. The overall numbers seemed so much larger than I thought, and, of course, the percentage of Islamic terrorist attacks was even smaller than I would have guessed (although the overall trend was not surprising to me). I wanted to pass it on.

People saw the post, shared it, and commented on it, but someone asked the question that I myself would have asked had it not been 4 a.m. when I read it (and had I not been suffering from insomnia): what is terrorism? The answer was harder to find than I would have thought.

The source of the chart is not the data. The chart probably comes from blog devoted to documenting anti-Muslim feeling and caricatures with the unfortunate name of They posted the European analysis as a follow-up to a similar analysis about the USA. The data, on the other hand, comes from two different sources: Europol for European Data and the FBI for American data. Here is what the breakdown of terrorism in the US looks like (according to loonwatch):

Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Soil by Group, From 1980 to 2005, According to FBI Database

When I dug deeper, I found the FBI report and the federal definition of terrorism. It is intuitively satisfying: “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).

So, terrorism according to the USA, is using force to intimidate or harm for political objectives. Fair enough. But this isn’t the definition the FBI used for the report. Instead, when collecting numbers about domestic terrorism, they used: “unlawful use, or threatened use,” In other words, for domestic classification they used threats of terrorism rather than terrorist acts. This too makes sense. Threats intimidate and the purpose of violence is often to make threats credible.

Interestingly, the FBI didn’t use threats to define international terrorism. There terrorism refers to “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life,” intended to coerce, that are against the law in the US or other states. Why would they use a different definition domestically and internationally? The cynic in me wonders if they want to increase the numbers for political purposes, but the realist guesses that since their job is to stop acts based on threats, domestic threats are just more serious to the FBI than international ones. I hope it’s the latter, of course.

Europol’s definition was harder to find; it was in a very long report available as a PDF. They distinguished threat statements and terrorist attacks. Here is the data for 2010 in Europe:

• 249 terrorist attacks
• 611 individuals arrested for terrorist
related offences
• 46 threat statements against EU
Member States
• 307 individuals tried for terrorism charges

There is a lot more terrorism than I knew. And if you want details, both the FBI and the Euro Pol reports provide them. But what is most surprising to me is that terrorism includes everything from burglary, to taking animals from laboratories, to vandalism, to bombing and kidnapping. What distinguishes these acts from other crimes is the intentions. If the purpose of an act or threat is to influence governments and policy, then it’s terrorism.

Philosophers spend a lot of time arguing about how to gauge the moral worth of something. Do we judge an act by the intention or by the consequences? Is saving a baby from drowning equally good, for example, if you do it to get famous instead of doing it to save a life? It seems that in the case of terrorism, this debate has been resolved. It doesn’t matter if an act is just a threat or if it’s actually carried out, it doesn’t matter if someone spray paints a message or kills 3,000 people. What does matter is the motivation behind the act. If the purpose is political, then it is a terrorist act.

But this means that the same act is going to be punished in a variety of ways and a terrorist threat may have more consequences than a random murder of a stranger. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with this. Furthermore, as a friend once said to me (I’m paraphrasing, here), a murder is a murder, whether it’s because you don’t like the individual or you hate them because of the color of their skin. The consequences are the same. She was talking about “hate crimes,” and I don't know that I agree, but the underlying question is the same: how much should someone’s motive matter in a crime? Isn’t it the harm that’s done that matters? In the case of terrorism, we can ask whether attacking a state is more serious than attacking a person. Relatives and friends of the victim might not agree that it is.

I am glad Loonwatch is out there; Islamophobia needs to be recorded and curbed. The data is tremendously interesting and frightening, and it shows, yet again, that many people are much frightened of Muslims in general, and they shouldn’t be. But as always, anytime we try to define anything, there are a myriad of philosophical issues that complicate the issue. Nothing, not even recording a list of terrorist incidents, is straight forward. Our definition is going to heavily influence our data and our motivation is going to affect our definition. Objectivity, as always, is very hard to find.

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