So just what exactly constitutes a terrorist, anyway?

07 Feb

Recently I was together with some brethren from my church community, and the talk turned to terrorism; a lively debate occurred around just what exactly constitutes a terrorist. One brother contended that anyone, whether part of an organization or whether a ‘lone wolf’, who committed an act of violence for a political end met the definition of terrorist, while another argued that traditionally, the definition of terrorist typically excluded lone wolves in favour of members of organizations, e.g. the I.R.A., the P.L.O., etc., who had very definite ends towards which they were hoping the violence they were committing were means.

I found it an interesting discussion, and I find myself musing on the matter. Should we exclude the likes of Timothy McVeigh or the Parliament Hill shooter or the recent Quebec City murderer from the definition of terrorist, and save it only for ISIS, al Qaeda, etc.? Or should the definition be broad enough to encompass both members of organizations promoting violence and lone wolves operating alone?

I incline towards the term being broad-based enough to include both, but I do think a distinction needs to be drawn between mass murderers who may have hatred towards a specific group motivating them but who aren’t aiming for a specific goal, just acting on their hatred, and those who hope to, say, foment a race war or something such.

What do you think?


Posted by on February 7, 2017 in open thread


17 responses to “So just what exactly constitutes a terrorist, anyway?

  1. manwhoisthursday

    February 7, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    We have a distinction between organized crime and individual crime. Something similar appears to be operative here. So, organized terrorism vs. individual terrorism works for me.

    • Will S.

      February 7, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      Ha! Good point. 🙂

  2. Carnivore

    February 8, 2017 at 5:50 am

    It’s the ‘aiming for a specific goal’ part, a political goal, which defines a terrorist, either alone or as a group.

    • Will S.

      February 8, 2017 at 7:56 am

      Exactly. That differentiates from a guy who shoots up a movie theatre or a school or workplace, who is just angry and hateful enough to kill, but not necessarily aiming any higher than ‘getting back at those bastards’.

  3. Matt

    February 8, 2017 at 9:11 am

    I think anyone who uses any means at all to achieve an ideological goal through inspiring fear (terror) should be labelled a terrorist. Whether it be a lone wolf separatist living in Montana who kills or maims any federal employee who enters a certain stretch of land, or an organized group of black mask wearing assailants who violently riot every time a certain topic or speaker is presented (yeah, I went there). The goal of terrorism is to inspire terror, to make one’s opponents afraid to take or not take a certain action.

  4. AM

    February 8, 2017 at 9:56 am

    It should be fairly simple; the term describes itself. Terrorism is the use of terror (real fear) to obtain one’s ideological goals. Generally speaking, it is used by people who have no hope of directing enough violence towards their grand designs (i.e., no hope of a war or revolution), so terror cows a population that cannot otherwise be constrained to comply. Usually, this is not just any violence, but violence directed against innocents or people not generally considered “fair game.” So, for example, a man who shoots a business rival with no intent to intimidate others, is a mere murderer; a man who shoots into a crowd of people (especially non-combatants), who have no immediate involvement in his agenda, in hopes of intimidating others to comply with it, is a terrorist; a man who shoots an abortionist is a vigilante (unless he’s preventing an imminent infanticide, in which case I keep trying and failing to find a reason to condemn him); a man who fights an hostile force for legitimate reasons, is just a man.

    • Will S.

      February 8, 2017 at 9:06 pm

      And a man who murders his coworkers or fellow students just out of hate and anger, is simply a mass murderer, and not a terrorist per se (unless all of them belonged to a particular identifiable group which he hated).

  5. feeriker

    February 9, 2017 at 1:18 am

    Terrorist: n.,sing.:

    1. A freedom fighter by another name, depending one’s point of view.

    2. A mythical creature, usually a petty criminal, created via entrapment by law enforcement in pursuit of a successful False Flag operation (q.v.).

    • Will S.

      February 9, 2017 at 7:44 am

      Ha! 🙂

    • barnyardboss

      February 10, 2017 at 12:55 pm

      might add “homegrown terrorist” per new DHS newspeak: to include new “americans” such as the islamics mass murdering gays or civil servants, and then pointing to Timothy McVeigh as the example of how white americans are “doing it, too”.

      • Will S.

        February 10, 2017 at 7:02 pm

        Yeah, really!

  6. c matt

    February 14, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    In part terrorist is defined by the victims/targets more so than the number of actors or whether he they belong to an organized group. A terrorist would be defined as one who uses violence against the general public to instill fear as a means to achieve some end. Whether that end be political (e.g., removal of a government or influence its policies) or private (e.g., a protection racket) does not seem to matter much. It would pick up IRA, Jihadis (alone or as part of a group), a mafia, and even government actors.

    • Will S.

      February 14, 2017 at 6:52 pm

      So you’d include organized crime using terror to achieve their ends in the same category as those who want to achieve a political end?

      I don’t know; I think that’s too inclusive a definition, and not nuanced enough, differentiating between the two.

      Still, I see where you’re coming from.

  7. Tom C

    February 28, 2017 at 2:48 am

    Soldiers fight other soldiers. Terrorists target civilians.

    • Will S.

      February 28, 2017 at 9:09 am

      Mostly, but sometimes we hear of terrorist attacks on military bases / installations.


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