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Official Definitions of Terrorism


[Editorial Note:] The US Code for defining an "act of terrorism" is an activity that — (A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and (B) appears to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.[End Note]

Two points. First, I’ve been using this and other official US definitions since I began writing on the topic in the early 80s, immediately after the Reaganites declared their war on terror.

For two reasons: (1) they are reasonable and close to common usage, and (2) they are appropriate, because the government that offers these definitions cannot claim that it is exempt from their consequences. Second point is that later this definition has been withdrawn, presumably because it was recognized that an immediate consequence is that the US is a leading terrorist state. Though it is safe to rely on the intellectual class not to draw the conclusion, nevertheless there are always mavericks who tell irritating truths, and sometimes the usual techniques of lying, hysteria, tantrums, etc., do not suffice among the general public, even though they almost invariably do among the educated classes. For that reason, the standard view now is that defining "terrorism" is a profound problem, to be dealt with in international conferences, academic studies, etc. And it’s true that it is a very hard problem to define "terrorism" so that it singles out what they do to us and our clients, but excludes what we and our clients do to them — a problem so far not solved and very profound, no doubt…

…The basic question about any such definition is whether it is universal, or whether it is designed to exclude some favored entity (state, group, whatever). If it isn’t, then it can’t be taken seriously. For any definition, the most important questions, I think, seem to me to lie elsewhere: in the distinction between terror and the much more serious crime of aggression, and the distinction between terror and legitimate resistance. I’ve discussed these frequently, most recently in a talk a week ago for Amnesty International in Dublin, which was posted on Znet (I think). As discussed there, we are really bending over backwards to give the present incumbents in Washington the benefit of the doubt when we consider, say, their war against Nicaragua as just extreme international terrorism. It fits the definition of aggression very precisely — that is, the crime for which Nazi war criminals were hanged at Nuremberg, with passionate declarations that the same principles will apply to ourselves. Similar interesting issues about terror and resistance, almost always suppressed in the self-declared "enlightened states."

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