An Argument for Terrorism

Richard Dean Wells Jackson

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Abstract

It has become something of a cliché to note that there are over 200 definitions of terrorism in existence within broader terrorism studies literature; that many terrorism scholars have given up on the definitional debate and use the term unreflectively; and that such a state of affairs hampers theoretical progress and skews terrorism research in unhelpful ways. However, the significance and consequences of the definitional debate go far beyond such narrow academic confines, important as they are to the field. Rather, the issue of definition is central to the way in which the Global War on Terror is prosecuted by the authorities both domestically and overseas. It also affects the way in which terrorism is understood and dealt with as a criminal act under international and domestic law. In the academic and cultural realms, the definition of terrorism has important implications for the way knowledge and commonsense about the subject is constructed and reproduced socially. Furthermore, it has substantial indirect consequences for individuals and groups labelled as terrorists – who may then be legally subject to torture, rendition and internment without trial – and for the “suspect communities” they belong to. This paper argues that despite a number of serious political and ontological obstacles to the definition of terrorism, it should be possible to agree on a clear set of criteria that can be employed to distinguish and conceptualise terrorism as a unique form of political violence. There are a great many advantages to adopting these definitional criteria. More importantly, there are political-normative imperatives for retaining “terrorism” as a central organising concept for the field. The paper begins by discussing some of the main challenges in defining terrorism and the kinds of knowledge practices this has resulted in to date. The second section outlines a set of criteria that analysts can employ to distinguish terrorism from other forms of political violence. The final section of the paper attempts to demonstrate how this approach to terrorism can play a role in strengthening rules and norms against illegitimate and oppressive forms of political violence, whether it is committed by state or nonstate actors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-32
Number of pages8
JournalPerspectives on Terrorism
Volume2
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008

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