Terrorism: The Definers and the Defined


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20140814

In an article titled, Do Past U.S. Acts Constitute Terrorism? Implications for Counterterrorism Policy, Adam Lankford (2010, 419) lists the following definitions of terrorism put forth by U.S. government agencies,

U.S. Code

‘‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’’ (U.S. Code Collection, 2008).


U.S. Department of defense (DOD)

‘‘The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological’’(U.S. Department of Defense, 2009).



The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives’’ (FBI, 2009).


I have emboldened certain aspects of the definitions listed above to assist in postulating a personal theory and definition on terrorism. In regard to definitional overlaps and common variables, Lankford pointed out how the definitions of terrorism put forth by U.S. government agencies converge around “illegality, violence, premeditation, and political motivation” along with “the intention to intimidate or coerce and the deliberate targeting of civilians(2010, 420). Lankford offers an excellent analysis of the latter two variables, however, I wish to extricate an emphasis on illegality and political motivation. Although Lankford’s attention to non-combatants is a hearty one, I believe the attacks on civilians who have not been professionally trained to defend themselves speaks more to the fact that governments are frustrated by the unconventional and illegal warfare perpetuated by the terrorists. Placed in another perspective, governments are more concerned about their power being manipulated or destabilized by civilian influence, than the loss of civilian life. When states terrorize other states, war is declared. When states terrorize their citizens, their political leaders enjoy impunity (historically evidenced-i.e. unprosecuted genocides). Thus, the power of state leaders is retained through unsanctioned acts of violence bearing the same variables as non-state actors who are, thereby, defined as “terrorists”. That is, the only difference between the state and non-state actor is the former has legitimized and legalized its right to engage in such activity. Lankford adds credence to my notion by pointing to Sproat (1991),

“Like attacks committed by non-state actors, state terrorism can be both domestic and foreign. Meanwhile, there is a danger that the exact same acts that are condemned as ‘‘abductions,’’ ‘‘hostage-taking,’’ ‘‘murders,’’ or ‘‘blackmail’’ when carried out by non-state actors will be considered legitimate ‘‘arrests,’’ ‘‘imprisonments,’’ ‘‘executions,’’ or ‘‘negotiations’’ when they are carried out by states. (Lankford, 2010, p. 420).

In this context, although most or all variables were present in the 1773 Boston Tea Party, 1945 U.S. Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan, 1953 CIA-Run Coup in Iran, 1986 U.S. Airstrikes on Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, and the 2003 U.S Invasion of Iraq, illegality, nor the international-legal fortitude to prosecute the U.S., was established.

Political legitimacy of governments and their leaders is anchored in civilian cooperation and tolerance. Violent acts, even terrorist acts, that expose the hypocrisy, corruption, abuse of authority, oppression, and anything else that effectively works to destabilize a government is fiercely countered and whitewashed through definitionalism. Still further, remembrance of a terrorist act is an essential part of cultivating instability, and therefore, when governments are unable to gain a comparative advantage from the event it will most likely, as in the case of the Joe Stack IRS event, be rejected as fitting the definition of terrorism. This is done in an attempt to avoid ongoing major publicity that could otherwise have a weakening effect.

It goes without saying, then, who is defined as a terrorist, ultimately, is relegated to the realm of those in authority to criminalize and prosecute those guilty of such acts. To this accord, state actors who terrorize other states, or their own citizens, remain the only actors who can engage in acts of terror without being defined and prosecuted as “terrorists”, despite how other blocs of illegitimate or illegal power may define them.

Therefore, I put forth that any attempt by politically motivated individuals or groups to undermine government authority by using premeditated violence to coercively influence the civilian or noncombatant population to question the legitimacy of or work to destabilize their government is defined as “terrorism.” A sub-definition could follow: Indiscriminately violent acts committed by individuals or groups without the approval of local, regional, national, or international governments, who according to international law, cannot otherwise be prosecuted as war criminals.




Military might is executed by powerful elites who control global wealth. They gained/gain power through acts of aggression be it military, economic, etc. Power begat more power and so goes the story of the little kid who had his lunch money stolen by the bully.

In one sense, governments are saying, “hey you want fight, bring it on, but build a state and play by the rules (Laws of warfare), and keep the common citizenry out of it.” To the extent that citizens get involved, the greater the risk becomes for a state and its leaders to lose political legitimacy. That is, citizens crown governmental leaders with authority in exchange for security. Terrorist attacks have a glaring tendency to reveal the lack of actual security existent within a particular state. Moreover, the powerful elites consider individuals or groups engaging in the same identical behavior of governments as “terrorists”, because these individuals or groups were never invited to the match for power accumulation. Political legitimacy, then, is considered by powerful elites as a recognized and established government. Terrorists produce a threat with more to lose than gain. In essence, terrorists can cause massive damage but defeating them usually does not yield any more territory or power. Therefore, terrorists are considered illegitimate or criminal and resources or better utilized fighting wars against other states where victories lead to an increase toward hegemonic power (means to an end).

Lawful and unlawful terrorism? If there is no such thing as lawful terrorism, why is terrorism defined partially as an “unlawful act of violence”?

This undoubtedly implies that some forms of violence are lawful, if so, what are they? CAUTION: LOADED QUESTION. Please avoid the common-sensibility of self-defense.

Terrorism is odd terminology appearing as a means of demonizing one form of violence against another. It goes without saying terror is inevitable in the presence of any type of violence. That is, unless there are groups or individuals who are excited or become joyful in the presence of violence, who arguably, would fit the psychotic personality type. Imperial, supremacist, colonial, and moral crusades, however philosophically justified in the minds of the crusaders, undoubtedly caused and continue to cause terror throughout the world.

In the United States, less than 1% of the total population is enlisted in the armed forces. That is, they are hired to fight for all that is sacred, ‘this great nation,’ ‘the city on the hill,’ ‘the beacon of freedom and democracy’, and wait a minute, secure state power by achieving political objectives through force when instructed. But what percentage of the U.S. military has uncompromised intelligence on the costs versus benefits during the objective-fulfillments?

If members of the armed forces are sworn to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, who defines enemies? Is there any form or fashion of a defined enemy that is not present right here in the U.S.? Both Sunni and Shiites Muslims definitely are.

If a member of the armed forces blew up a local police station that had a long history of abusing local authority and violating the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, would this be considered a terrorist attack?


 Lankford, A. (2010). Do Past U.S. Acts Constitute Terrorism? Implications for Counterterrorism Policy. International Criminal Justice Review20(4), 417-435. 10.1177/1057567710384993








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