Words mean things, or at least they should.  One of the most overused words these days is terrorist.  Originally it had what I might consider to be a traditional meaning like this one from dictionary.com:

a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism.

Which then requires us to look at their definition of terrorism:

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes. 

This is, or was, a seemingly useful definition.  At my age of course I recall the hijacking of various airlines or the bombing of Pan Am 103 of Lockerbie when I was a kid.  Those would seem to fit the bill for a definition of terrorism.lockerbie


However if we think about it a little bit more then that definition does not quite work.  After all, governments engage in the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purpose all the time.  In fact, the primary job of US Secretaries  of state seems to be the use of violence and threats to intimidate.  Which brings us back the original definition of terrorism:  a person, usually a member of a group. .  Aha, so when a government threatens another government that is not considered terrorism.

However, the general consensus in the world I would think is that Iran has certainly engaged in terrorism by funding various groups that have engaged in the bombing and kidnapping of civilians.   However, the US and recently Israel are often engaged in the bombing of civilians.  The difference (by general consensus) seems to be that the US and Israel do not intentionally target civilians.  Rather the civilians are collateral damage to legitimate military targets.  Whats more, it is often said (particularly in the Israeli/Palestinian issue) that many of these casualties are the result of terrorists purposefully hiding amongst civilians in order to increase civilian casualties so that they can be used for propaganda purposes.hamburg-bombing

So far we have a working definition of terrorist as:

a person, group, or occasionally a government that intentionally targets civilians in order to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.

Who exactly does that leave as terrorists today?  Terrorism has become somewhat of a cavalier word, being thrown around by anyone and everyone.  For example, Ukraine continually references pro-Russian separatists as terrorists.  Assuming for a second that MH17 was not intentional, then that definition would seem not to apply.   On the other hand, nobody seems to be calling the government of Ukraine terrorists despite some actions that would appear to be directly targeting civilians (Ukraines Fiery Inferno).


Of course Israel labels Hamas as terrorists, even those Hamas men who appear on the field of battle with rifle in hand.  At the same time, none of Israels actions such as ordering the evacuation of entire city blocks and then demolishing them are considered terrorism.

So our working definition of terrorism seems a bit off.

Furthermore, over time various countries countries that today point their finger at terrorists have engaged in behavior that would seem to fit the definition of terrorism.  For example, while the 8th Air Force originally attempted precision bombing in Germany, it was quickly realized that precision bombing just wasnt going to work and that mass attacks on civilians were the way to go.  Israelis of course also resorted to terrorism when it was convenient (King David Hotel Bombing).

So what then is a useful, working definition of terrorism?  I submit it is the following:

When the weaker of two parties in an engagement does not fight by the rules set down by the stronger of two parties.

Why is the definition important?  Clausewitz said War is Politics by Other Means.  Given our working definition of terrorism, perhaps we should add the Haave Corollary Terrorism is War By Other Means.

This perhaps leads us to the ghastly conclusions that perhaps terrorists dont hate us for our freedoms but perhaps are at war with us and simply are fighting with the only tools at their disposal.  Perhaps its time to consider why exactly they are at war with us.