Breaking Glass

Myths of Terrorism

It’s been a bad year for terrorism in the United States.  Not bad, fortunately, in the number of actual attacks (at least at the time of this writing), but in the continuing debasement of the word terrorism, so that it ceases to be a useful characterization of behavior and becomes merely a propaganda slogan for interest groups.

The U.S. Supreme Court contributed to this sad process when, last June, it decided the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.  The State Department maintains a list of so-called Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and U.S. law prohibits giving support or aid to these groups.  In Holder, the Court decided that this blanket prohibition applied when sympathetic groups were merely providing advice to alleged terrorist organizations, even when that counsel was intended to push the recipients in peaceful or constitutional directions.

What’s wrong with that decision is the whole concept of “terrorist organizations.”  For scholars or professionals, terrorist acts can be defined clearly.  They are acts of violence carried out by organized groups, in order to serve a political purpose, and (critically) they are directed against civilian targets, usually with the goal of creating fear or intimidation.  Armed attacks against military objectives are not terrorism.  U.S. law, sensibly, defines terrorism as “premeditated,...

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