How to Usefully Distinguish Terrorism From Other Forms of Violence

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve noticed there’s been a bit of an uptick in think-pieces about what counts as “terrorism”. These tend to be built around a common observation that white mass murderers tend not to get the “terrorist” label and that the Trump administration reacts very differently to mass violence when the perpetrator is Muslim, an immigrant, a refugee, or a close relative thereof. Perhaps the most strident example is Matthew Walther’s piece in The Week in which he claims that there is “no such thing” as terrorism. It’s the return of a conversation we saw in 2015 and which has tended to repeat whenever some high profile mass violence occurs. This debate results from a lack of clarity in the way we think about violence. Let’s fix this.

Whenever passions are high, clarity tends to go out the window. We often feel that our societies problematize and prioritize certain kinds of violence more than others, and we try to revise those priorities by expanding the definition of “terrorism” so that it can accompany an ever-increasing list of different forms of violence. You can see why people do this–if you want other people to care about some act of violence, convincing them to think of it as “terrorism” as opposed to something else is often a politically effective strategy. People tend to get more worked up about “terrorism” than they do “murder”. But the consequence of expanding definitions in this way is that they start to lose their intellectual salience. Overly broad definitions are not conceptually useful. If “terrorism” just means “violence that I really don’t like and think we should do something about”, it doesn’t mean much of anything.

A more useful definition of terrorism would be highly precise. It might identify three things:

  • The sort of actor that commits terrorism. (State or non-state actors?)
  • The sort of actor that terrorism targets. (Military personnel or civilians?)
  • The motivation or purpose of said targeting. (Political or personal?)

Now, if the answer to the three questions in parentheses is “both”, the definition once again becomes an amorphous blob. We must remember that there are other ways to label violence we don’t like. Some violence, for instance, is “genocide”, some is “murder”, some is “warfare”. We don’t have to call all forms of violence “terrorism” to care about them.

What is the quintessential terrorist attack? 9/11, of course. We mostly agree that 9/11 is a terrorist act. The term “terrorism” became a big deal largely because of 9/11. What kind of violence was 9/11? It was committed by Al Qaeda, which is a non-state actor. It was committed against airline passengers and office workers–civilians. Depending on who you ask, it was committed either to make a political point about American foreign policy or to make a political point about the evils of western civilization. But regardless of which way we interpret the substance of the point, it was undeniably political. That’s what terrorism is–political violence directed against civilians by a non-state actor. We have lots of other words for the other kinds of violence that kill people:

  • Political violence directed against civilians by a state actor–depending on the scale of the killing and whether the state is attempting to destroy the entire group or just some subsection, that’s usually considered either a “war crime”, “total war”, or “genocide”. Those attempting to justify this kind of violence will sometimes call it “collateral damage” to imply that the civilian killings are incidental. When the state uses violence against its own people rather than somebody else’s, we sometimes resort to the vaguer term “mass murder” or invoke the word “purge”. The Holocaust is genocide, not terrorism. Stalin’s political killings are purges, not terrorism.
  • Political violence directed against military personnel by a non-state actor–that’s usually “guerrilla warfare” or “insurgency”. When Al Qaeda or ISIS attack Iraqi, Syrian, or American troops, they’re engaging in insurgency, not terrorism. When they kill civilian Iraqis, Syrians, or Americans, that’s terrorism.
  • Political violence directed against military personnel by a state actor–that’s usually “warfare”, though if the means of the violence violates international laws and norms, it can sometimes be considered a “war crime”. When the United States attacked Saddam Hussein’s military forces, that was warfare. But if we want to emphasize the illegality of the Iraq War, we might call it a war crime.
  • Non-political violence directed against civilians by a state actor–that’s a category that doesn’t exist, because state violence is inherently political.
  • Non-political violence directed against military personnel by a state actor–again, that’s conceptually incoherent.
  • Non-political violence directed against civilians by a non-state actor–that’s “murder”, and if there are many victims it’s “mass murder”. The Sandy Hook shooter didn’t appear to have had any obvious political motive. He’s a mass murderer, but not a terrorist. The Norwegian shooter was clearly motivated by right wing political concerns–he’s a terrorist.
  • Non-political violence directed against military personnel by a non-state actor–that’s “murder” or “mass murder”, just like the above.

We can stick this all in a handy chart:

With these clearer conceptual distinctions in mind, suddenly the argument the Trump administration is having with gun control supporters makes more sense. The Trump administration seems to care more about terrorism than it does about murder, and it might try to defend itself from “double standard” accusations on that basis–when we talk about terrorism, we really are talking about something different from ordinary murder. But because sometimes the Trump administration does get very upset about some murders (when those murders are committed by immigrants or refugees, or committed against police officers) it still is often guilty of a double standard, albeit a more specific kind than the kind of which it’s usually accused. The issue is not that Trump politicizes terrorism and not murder, it’s that he politicizes some murders and not others, and the basis for determining whether or not to a politicize a murder seems to be some combination of the race/religion of the perpetrator and whether the victim is a cop. That’s why Trump’s double standard feels kinda racist. It feels especially racist when the administration attributes political motives where none exist to murderers of color in a bid to classify them as terrorists and get people worked up about their race/religion.

By contrast, gun control advocates think that we ought to care more about murders in general. Some of them think that we care too much about terrorism, but there’s nothing intrinsically inconsistent about holding those two views together, because terrorism and murder are different things and our society does try much harder to stop terrorism than it does murder. A reasonable person might think that we try too hard at stopping the former and not hard enough at stopping the latter.

If we collapsed the distinction between terrorism and murder, suddenly both sides in the argument would look completely self-contradictory. But by making this distinction and being more analytically specific, we can see that the Trump administration does indeed have a troubling double standard and the gun control advocates do not. Different people do care more about some forms of violence than others, and the only way to determine who’s right and who’s wrong is to sort out which distinctions are arbitrary and which attach to something relevant. The race/religion of the murderer is an arbitrary basis for caring more about an act of violence, but the presence of political motivation is genuinely troubling because of what it implies about the stability and legitimacy of the political system and about the spread of potentially dangerous anti-system political ideologies. Lumping all violence together under broad catch-all categories just makes it harder for us to talk to each other about these things.