Why some things are called ‘terrorism’ and some aren’t — and what that might mean

I am grimly fascinated about why some things are called terrorism and some things aren’t, and often wonder whether calling something terrorism makes us all, well, effectively more terrified.

This morning a woman was stabbed to death in central London and five others were injured. For a while, the police bandied around ‘it might be terrorism’, and so all the papers had live blogs, etc etc. Now it has been decided that the perpetrator was ‘mentally ill’ — which only leads to more questions, in my opinion (what does that mean, isn’t everyone who murders someone in cold blood suffering with some kind of mental problem, what about if someone who is mentally ill also pledges their allegiance to a terrorist group?).

Anyway, luckily enough, my sister Dr Louise Pears has just completed a PhD in terrorism at Leeds University and wrote me this to help me understand (not really about today’s attack, but more about the string of attacks we have called terrorism before it, from Lee Rigby’s killing onwards). I thought other people might like to read it too — so here it is.

You might be familiar with the old adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, or, indeed, famous examples from history of people that have at some point or other been labelled as a terrorist, when the fullness of time has shown their cause to be a just one (Nelson Mandela is a good example here).

The truth is, there is no accepted definition of what terrorism ‘is’, in academic or political circles, and there have been hundreds of books and articles dedicated to this over the years. Usually, definitions involve some idea that terrorist violence is done by non-state groups, and is directed against a particular group or state to generate fear in order to affect political change.

All of these elements are pretty hotly contested, and it has been pointed out that many states could be said to engage in terrorist violences in order to control their populations, or elements of their population; that it is hard to consider acts of violence that don’t create wider feelings of fear; or to get any kind of handle on what it means to be aiming for political change.

Moreover, most groups that have been associated with terrorism usually deny that they are terrorist, but instead claim to be a resistance force, freedom fighters, independence fighters, political martyrs and so on. What is ultimately at stake here is not the label itself, but what the label does both to those that it is successfully applied to and what it enables by way of counter-terrorism activities. To quote Prof Eric Herring of Bristol: “Terrorism is a delegitimizing label”. Or, bluntly: terrorists are the bad guys. So it is clear why people don’t like to call themselves that.

On the other hand, it is often pretty politically expedient to call something terrorism. It enables a particular response to be enacted that might not be enacted against other expressions of violence — think, for example, how the terror attack of 9/11 was part the argument for the war in Iraq. Or more concretely, the way that terrorism charges carry different legal processes and prison charges than the same activities (such as murder) if these acts are not associated with terrorism. It becomes part of a wider threat and so it generates particualr responses, and then the controversy often becomes whether these responses are warranted or proportionate.

There is of course the effect that something becomes terrorism when it is labelled as such; it becomes more terrifying because it is taken outside of the realm of ‘normal violence’ and made to be part of a larger threat. And so, ultimately, it is a threat to you or your family (in the way that reading about someone being stabbed isn’t so scary because that doesn’t mean you will get stabbed, but once it becomes terrorism, it becomes more scary, because it means that you might get stabbed, or at least that there might be more stabbings in order to change a politics that you might be invested in — “they are against ‘our way of life’”).

Of course, the anomaly here is that terrorism works so much better when it is widely reported on, and when it is reported on/spoken about by governments as terrorism. This enables terrorism to create the fear that it is assumed it was intending to: in academia, this is often called the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media.

There is an often quoted fact that more Americans die in their baths than are killed by terrorism, and yet we are not calling for a ban on all bathrooms.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.