Defining Terrorism

The most difficult problem in understanding politics is, I believe, to see the phenomena as they are without confusion or mystification, simply to observe who does what to whom, to hear what he says about his actions, and to observe their consequences. The more simply and clearly the phenomena can be observed and described, the greater the possibility that their meaning and significance can be understood.

What the terrorist does is kill, maim, kidnap, torture. His victims may be children in the schoolroom, travelers like those held and rescued at Entebbe, or gathered in an airport as at Lod. They may be industrialists returning home from work, political leaders — diplomats in Paris, London, Los Angeles — or legislators like those on whom machine guns were turned in the 1950s here in Washington. The terrorist’s victims may have no particular political identity — like the cafe-goers at Goldenberger’s in Paris or the passers-through at Lod (now Ben Gurion Airport); or they may be political symbols, like Aldo Moro or, perhaps, Pope John Paul II. They may be kidnapped and held for ransom, maimed or simply blown to bits. One defining characteristic of the terrorist is his choice of method: the terrorist chooses violence as the instrument of first resort.

Yet terrorism is distinguished from violent crime. Crime, too, is unauthorized violence against persons who are not at war. How does terrorism differ from simple crime? The difference lies not in the nature of the act, but in the understanding of the perpetrator, however vague, about what he is doing. Terrorism is political in a way that crime is not; the terrorist acts in the name of some political, some public purpose. Political man, Harold Casswell wrote, is one who projects private affects onto public objects and rationalizes them in the name of a conception of the public good. The members of Murder, Inc. acted for private purposes. John Hinckley, as I understand it, attempted to kill President Reagan for essentially private reasons. But the killers who sprayed bullets into Goldenberger’s, like those who attempted to murder Eden Pastora, has a public goal in view. Terrorism is a form of political war. While the conception of the actor transforms the act, and while a purpose related to a public goal makes an act political, it does not make it moral. A public purpose does not make a terrorist who has been arrested a political prisoner.

Terrorism should also be distinguished from conventional war and terrorists from soldiers who wield violence. A soldier wields violence in accordance with the legal authorities of his society against enemies designated by legally constituted authorities. Soldiers use violence where a state of belligerence is recognized to exist. The terrorist engages in violence in violation of law against persons who are not at war with him. Even in this century of total war, when civilian targets are drawn into conflict by bombing and by resistance movements, belligerency is at least a condition known to all the parties to a conflict. The Nazi occupiers patrolling the streets of Paris understood that French civilians were not only conquered but, that for many, the war continued. They understood that some unknown portion of the civilian population was at war with them and had not acquiesced in the surrender signed by France’s wartime government.

Terrorists use violence against people who do not understand themselves to be at war. The victims of terrorist attack are unarmed, undefended and unwary. They may be, in my opinion, sleeping Marines on a peace-keeping mission, or an industrialist coming home from work or schoolchildren in their schoolroom. The point is, and it seems to me crucial, the victims conceive themselves as civilians. They do not understand that they are regarded, or may be regarded, by someone else as belligerents in an ongoing war. This is a reason that one study done in our government emphasized that terrorism is “politically motivated, premeditated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents.”

If we listen to the terrorist, we understand that he is at war against us. Terrorism is a form of war against a society and all who embody it. War, as always, is as Clausewitz emphasized, “a real political instrument, a continuation of politics by other means.” It is “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”

Terrorist war is part of a total war which sees the whole of society as the enemy, and all the members of a society as appropriate objects for violent action. It is absolute war, because its goal is absolute destruction of a society and because it accepts annihilation of persons as an appropriate means. Terrorists are the shock troops in a war to the death against the values and institutions of a society — Western society or non- Western society — and of the people who embody it.

The terrorist does not necessarily possess a comprehensive doctrine or plan. It is only necessary that he relate his violent act to a social political goal. In our times he is likely also to be linked to an organization of others who share his understood “political” interests, and who organize and assist his violent acts and relate them to international political goals.

The affinities between terrorism and totalitarianism are multiple. Both politicize the whole of society — the totalitarian by making society, culture and personality the object of his plans, actions and power; the terrorist by taking the whole of society as the object and enemy of his violence, his war. Both conceive violence as an appropriate means to their political ends and use violence as an instrument of first resort aggressively. They understand that smashing a society means smashing people. Both reject basic moral principles associated with Judeo-Christian civilization, such as the value and responsibility of the individual, and also reject prohibitions against the use of offensive force in social or international affairs. “We are against everything that is good and decent,” said home-grown terrorist Bernadine Dorhn.

Both terrorists and totalitarians act and see themselves as acting in the name of a new morality and on the basis of a different epistemology. Both see their violence as justified by their “higher” morality whose transcendent collective ends justify and demand violation of conventional morality and the sacrifice of people whose membership in the old society makes them “expendable.” Both permit and even en-courage expression of aggressive, murderous instincts whose repression, Freud correctly emphasized, is a precondition of civilization. The social relations of both to outsiders are dominated by hostile intent. The enemy is everywhere, struggle is inevitable. It is unending. It is total.

But despite the many affinities of terrorism and totalitarianism, the two need also to be distinguished. Totalitarianism is the property of a certain kind of society or polity. One of the instruments of the polity is terror. Terrorism, on the other hand, may be the property of individuals, small groups or governments which do not in fact possess total power, whose rulers may have totalitarian aspirations, but whose societies have not yet become totalitarian. I take it that both Libya and Syria are examples of such states.

Raymond Aron described three kinds of terror as pre-sent in the Soviet experience: that used by a party or faction against parties or factions hostile to them; that which aims at eliminating class enemies, such as liquidation of the Kulaks as a class; and that which turned terror previously used against class enemies or adversaries against all those who disagreed with the ruler. This third category permitted anyone who was in any way objectionable to be classified as an “enemy of the people.” All these categories of terror are present in the violence of the terrorist. Totalitarian society is saturated with coercion. Nonetheless, not all coercive societies are totalitarian and not all societies that support, sponsor or harbor terrorists and terrorism are totalitarian.

The most important relations between terrorism and totalitarianism seem to me to be, first, that the most important totalitarian state of our times is also the principal sup-porter and sponsor of international terrorism as a form of political action; and second, that those who pursue power by terrorism aspire to found totalitarian societies. Orwell wrote: “It is not merely that ‘power corrupts;’ so also do the ways of attaining power. Therefore all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the O.G.P.U.” “The essential act,” he wrote also, “is the rejection of democracy — that is, of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided that, Stalin — or at any rate someone like Stalin — is already underway.”

In Nicaragua, rejection of democracy by the Sandinista junta and the choice of the method of violence has led indeed to something like Stalinism — a system that has forced Miskito Indians into internment camps or exile, has imposed prior censorship, absorbed free trade unions, controlled businessmen, repressed the church and church leaders, and sees Nicaraguans who want a voice in their own government as “enemies of the people.”

It happened, too, in Grenada, where Maurice Bishop and his colleagues seized power by force and attempted to create on that tropical island a full-blown totalitarian state. It happened, of course, in Vietnam where the North imposed a “military solution” on the South and followed its victory with the establishment of totalitarian institutions which have forced hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese into labor camps for “re-education,” driven others into the sea and pressed thousands of others into armies conducting their ongoing permanent war against Cambodia. Something like Stalinism has led to the liquidation of a nation.

The choice of method is the essential political act. It is hardly surprising that rulers who choose coercion as an instrument of government should see violence as a central instrument of government. Beginning in the late 1960s, for example, the Soviet Union and Soviet terrorists began to identify the “armed road,” as they called it, as the way to power in the Western hemisphere. They not only discovered that their own experiences could be applied elsewhere; they set about applying those experiences in this hemisphere — the Bandera Roja, FARC, M-19, Sendero Luminoso, FSLN, FMLN, ERP, the Monteneros, the Tupamaros, the MIR, to name just a few of the small bands of violent men, technicians in violence and propaganda, who found ready, external support in their effort to win power by violence over unwilling societies.

They begin with terror and seek, as the definition proposed at the last conference sponsored by the Jonathon Institute has suggested, to inspire fear through the use of terror to gain political ends. Such deliberate use of terror is relied upon to produce a revolutionary situation. It has become the preferred tactic in contemporary revolutionary conflicts. This now familiar cycle is accompanied by a chorus of moral outrage from a self-designated constituency of Soviet client states. They seek to win symbolic support for the violence used in the pursuit of total and absolute power. These “technicians in violence” and propaganda, head what are called “national liberation movements.” The Soviets frankly acknowledge that their support for these movements may be decisive as, for example, when they say:

National liberation struggle is a form of war waged by peoples of colonial and dependent or formerly colonial territories in which Socialist countries become the decisive factor when peoples launch an armed struggle against internal reactionaries.

“National liberation movements” is the name given to groups supported by the Soviet Union and associated states seeking power by violence. Their acceptance as legitimate by and in the United States is as good an indicator as any of the moral confusion which has come to surround the use of violence and the choice of violence as the method of political action.

Inside the United Nations, beginning in the 1970s, successive majorities of the General Assembly have passed resolutions asserting their support for the right of SWAPO, the PLO, and other national liberation movements “in their struggle, by all means, including armed struggle …” to achieve power. Inside the United Nations, the majorities, forged in blocs, many of whose over-lapping members are Soviet-client states, proclaim the right of these national liberation movements to use all means including violence. The same majorities deny that their intended victims and targets have the right to defend themselves. Thus, Abu Eain, accused of planting a bomb in a teeming market area in Tiberias, Israel — a bomb that killed two boys and injured some thirty others — was treated by the General Assembly as a mere political dissident whose right to dissent and asylum should have been protected by the American courts, whose protections, I may say, he made full use of for a period of years. The General Assembly denounced the various U.S. court decisions, including that of the U.S. Supreme Court, that held that Abu Eain should be extradited for trial in Israel. When American courts concluded that bombing of civilians was not a political, and hence nonextraditable offense, but rather constituted the crimes of murder and attempted murder and that the perpetrator was subject to prosecution and punishment in the state where the crimes were committed, the United Nations General Assembly reaffirmed, in effect, that terrorism in defense of national liberation is no crime and that the intended victims have no rights of self- defense.

In the semantics of UN majorities today, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of force has not so much been blurred as stood on its head. Where traditionally states are seen as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, UN majorities today see liberation movements as having a monopoly on legitimate use of force against targeted states. According to this upside-down view of terrorism, the peoples whose homes and villages are burned, whose school-children are bombed, whose crops are destroyed, whose cattle are killed, whose leaders are murdered and whose families are forcibly relocated may not be seen as victims of illegitimate violence, but rather as objects of national liberation. Only governments that seek to repress the violence of national liberation movements are cited for human rights violations. In this view, a targeted society has no rights of self-defense against armed bands within its midst.

But it cannot be that the Federal Republic of Germany has no right to defend itself against the Baader-Meinhof gang; that the Italian government has no right to defend itself against the Red Brigades; that the government of Spain has no right to defend itself against Basque terrorists; that the government of El Salvador has no right of self-defense against guerrillas who boycott its elections, attack its co-ops, murder its peasants; or that the government of Uruguay has no right to defend itself against the Tupamaros.

The level of confusion has grown very deep and very serious. Yet we know it cannot be that terror wrecked on a civilian population by a revolutionary movement is liberation, while violence committed by a government responding to a guerrilla threat is repression. It cannot be that national liberation movements have the right to use violence against civilians, economies, societies and governments, and that those societies have no right to defend themselves — that violence conducted in the name of revolution is legitimate, while violence used by governments and societies to defend themselves against guerrillas is illegitimate. The distinction between terror used in defense of society and terror used to destroy society is really not so difficult. Many, however, have become confused by the semantics of totalitarianism, by the specialists in propaganda.

The liberation of Grenada provided, I believe, a particularly clear-cut example of the confusion surrounding the legitimate use of force, and not only of confusion inside the United Nations. Outside that body, in some allied nations, extraordinary confusion was displayed as when a distinguished parliamentarian of a friendly government said:

If the governments arrogate to themselves the right to change the governments of other sovereign states, there can be no peace in this world in perhaps the most dangerous age which the human race has ever known. It is quite improper for Honorable Members to condemn, as we have, the violation of international law by the Soviet Union in its attack on Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, if we do not apply the same standards to the United States’ attack on Grenada two days ago.

I suggest that precisely what is at issue is applying the same standards, but applying them with realism and clarity.

Inside the United Nations, majorities in both the Security Council and the General Assembly rushed to condemn the acts of collective self-defense that liberated the inhabitants of Grenada from five days of absolute lawlessness — from five days of murder, of a four-day, 24-hour, shoot-on-sight curfew — in the hands of a group which boasted of the fact that it was not a government. That the action of the United States, the OECS, and Jamaica and Barbados was condemned — despite the clear and present danger to the United States’ nationals; despite the fact that it was undertaken at the express request of the Governor- General of Grenada, which request was later confirmed by him; despite its basis in the collective defense provisions of the Treaty of the OECS; and in spite of the fact that it was undertaken to the manifest delight of the citizens of Grenada — that the condemnation took place under these circumstances is, I believe, the clearest recent example of the prevailing level of confusion. Unable to distinguish between force used to protect the innocent and force used to victimize, between force used to liberate and force used to enslave, successive majorities in the U.N. follow the principle of treating legitimacy as a function of will and power exercised in behalf of national liberation movements.

There is one last affinity between terrorism and totalitarianism that I should like to mention. Both attempt to confuse as well as to terrorize. Solzhenitsyn, Orwell and others have emphasized that violence is used to maintain a system of lies, and lies are used to justify relations based on violence. Violence can be used to close a society, lies can be used to veil the violence: to call open that which is closed, true that which is false, insane he who raises questions about either or about anything about which it is not recommended that questions should be raised. Violence, as Solzhenitsyn emphasized, is the opposite of peace. It is war.

Terrorists and totalitarians alike thrive on falsification and intimidation. Finding the courage to face the truth and speak about it is surely the first important step toward the defeat of those who would destroy our freedom and our world.


  • Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

    Jeane Duane Jordan Kirkpatrick (December 19, 1926 – December 7, 2006) was an American ambassador and an ardent anticommunist. After serving as Ronald Reagan's foreign policy adviser in his 1980 campaign and later in his Cabinet, the longtime Democrat-turned-Republican was nominated as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and became the first woman to hold this position.

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