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What Is Terrorism - Defining State Terror

Updated on September 3, 2014
Terrorism is usually equated with attacks by Islamic extremists against Western powers.
Terrorism is usually equated with attacks by Islamic extremists against Western powers. | Source

Should State terror be included in a definition of terrorism?

For any definition of terrorism to be considered comprehensive, it must set out the parameters for the inclusion of acts by the State. To this day, defining what terrorism is, let alone who can carry it out, has been a major difficulty. The topic seems eternally deadlocked. It is not the objective of this essay to define the term terrorism. The objective here is to argue that, however the term is defined, acts by the State should be included. I will do that by examining the three main arguments against inclusion, before looking at some practical examples. It is easy to see how diplomacy, personal political bias and regard for the "status quo" can be difficulties within a field like this. I will argue that, regardless of what State is involved, some acts of the State can and should be included in the definition of terrorism.

Before considering individual examples of State acts of terror, let us first examine the three main arguments against inclusion. The first argument is deeply rooted in Political Theory and Social Contract. The argument is this: the State has the monopoly of legitimate violence within its borders. Therefore the very nature of the State is incompatible with the crime of terrorism. This long held view is, like most other topics in this field, the source of much debate. In the last 30 years, Social Contract theory has enjoyed a revival, widely credited to John Rawls, and has peaked alongside terrorism studies. The very basic principle of this argument, the Hobbesian notion that by entering into a State we authorise all actions of the sovereign as legitimate, is now being questioned. Wilkinson notes:

"the states monopoly of violence cannot be justified simply because it exists but only by a demonstration that it is morally legitimate" (Wilkins, 1992, 63)

As a result, I'm sure any modern Social Contact theorist would hesitate to back this argument. The second main argument, in reality, isn't really an argument for exclusion, separation rather. It claims that including acts of the State alongside acts by non-State groups widens the topic too much, and they should be considered separately. Silke wrote,

"I cannot help but feel that state terrorism is actually a rhinoceros which has strayed close to our terrorism elephant. So while there are similarities between the two, they are ultimately two different creatures" (Silke, 1996, 22)

Whether or not state terrorism deserves a separate field is a completely different question. This non-argument against inclusion is irrelevant in the context of this essay. The third main argument against inclusion is law based. Given current international law, there is no basis to charge states with the crime of terrorism. The U.N. Security Council resolution 1566 supports this idea. Blakely remarks:

"According to dominant views in mainstream policy, media and academic circles, terrorism constitutes the targeting of Northern democratic states and their allies by non-state groups supplied and controlled by "rogue" states or elements located in the south" (Blakely, 2007, 228)

I will examine this apparent double standard among the Western powers later. I cannot accept this argument against the inclusion of states in a definition of terrorism. The argument is almost justifying state terror by refusing to acknowledge it. Let us not forget, that no laws existed against the War Crimes carried out during World War II until after the war, would it have been right to just leave it be, like is being done with terrorism in this argument? I think not. Acts of terror by the state need to be accepted in a definition of terrorism if it they can ever be incorporated in international law.

As Blakely asserts above, there is a widespread bias in politics, media and academia regarding terrorism. The media are quick to condemn acts by so-called "rogue" states as terrorism, yet they don't even see fit to bind states in general who commit acts of terror to a concrete definition or law. Blakely also adds that:

"critically orientated scholars need to reclaim the term 'terrorism' and use it as an analytical tool, rather than a political tool in the service of elite power" (Blakely, 2007, 233)

The same act is condoned or condemned, depending on whether those who perpetrated it are friend or foe. There are certain examples of terrorism by the state that nobody can deny. One such example is the Tian'amnen Square massacre in 1989 by the Chinese government. The murder of protesters in the square itself and the widespread arrests in the crackdown afterwards ticks most, if not all, the boxes of terrorism. It was politically motivated, targeted civilians and was aimed at the Chinese public in general to deter any would-be-dissenters. The world condemned the actions of the Chinese government, and rightly so, but would these actions have been condemned had they occurred, say, in the U.S.? That's very debatable. In fact, the U.S. has a lengthy history of terror. Crelinsten provides this summary:

"the legitimacy and power of the state tend to cloak any overt forms of its violence in different guises, such as arrests instead of abduction, imprisonment instead of of hostage-taking, execution instead of murder and coercive diplomacy instead of blackmail." (Crelinston, 1987, 440)

This double standard is becoming more plainly obvious the more I research it. During the Cold War the U.S. backed authoritarian regimes in South America, amongst other places. These authoritarian regimes, take Chile for example, are guilty of terrible crimes, crimes of terrorism. The disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and abduction are widely documented. There was no condemnation here from the western world. It suited the U.S. to support terrorism while it played its chess game with the U.S.S.R. The pieces being governments, the board a world map. As Chomsky writes:

"the U.S. government takes a propagandistic approach that focuses solely on actors seen as antithetical to U.S. interests." (Chomsky, 1991, 12)

The current U.S. "war on terror" has been the subject of criticism, but, crucially, by nobody in power. Gray remarks:

"The full extent of US abuses of human rights in the "War on Terror" invite further work, including assessing the policy of extraordinary rendition, in which other democratic states, especially in Europe, are complicit" (Grey, 2006)

The U.S. "Shock and Awe" campaign also draws criticism. Of course, trying to model a definition to include all these acts, without upsetting a super-power is a diplomatic nightmare. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining actions of the state's absence from terrorism definitions.

The only just and fair option is to include any act of terror by any state in a definition of terrorism. Regardless of whether the perpetrators are Al-Qaeda, the IRA, Hamas, Isreal, Iran, the USA or Great Britain, the human effect of terrorism is always the same. All of the above should therefore be treated the same. Wilkinson asserts:

"if we are to gain an adequate understanding of the broader historical and international trends we need to recognise throughout history it is its regimes and states, with their overwhelming propensity for coercive power, which have shown the greatest propensity for terror on a mass scale, both as an instrument of internal repression and control, and as a weapon of aggression and subjugation" (Wilkinson, 2001, 41)

No entity should get preferential treatment from academics or the media. Acts of terror by the state must be included in any definition of terrorism that is to be taken seriously.


Blakely, R., 2007, Bringing the State back into terrorism studies in European Political Science 6(3) available

Chomsky, N., 1991, International Terrorism, Image and Reality in A.George (ed.) Western State Terrorism, Polity Press, Cambridge

Crelinsten, R.D., 1987, Power and Meaning: Terrorism as a struggle over access to the communication structure in P.Wilkinson and A.M. Stewart (eds.) Contemporary Research on Terrorism, Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen.

Grey, S., 2006, Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA's Secret Rendition Programme , Hurst/St. Martins, New York, NY.

Wilkins, B.T., 1992, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility

Wilkinson, 2001, Therrorism vs. Democracy: The Liberal State Response , Frank Cass, London.


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    • Highvoltagewriter profile image

      William Benner 6 years ago from Savannah GA.

      Great hub and I tend to agree with your findings!

    • wilbury4 profile image

      wilbury4 7 years ago from England I think?

      Hence; any act that generates terror/fear towards another person or group is in fact an act of terrorism, no matter who commits that act.

      Good luck with your studies and all the best for your travel hopes. Wil.

    • profile image

      Hxprof 7 years ago from Clearwater, Florida

      I like this piece. I can see both sided to this argument.

      I've come to a conclusion that leaves no one out: War is intristically 'terroristic'-acts of brutality, slaughter, etc. have been executed against civilians from the beginnings of history and continue till now.

      Thus, there's rarely a war that isn't terroristic (involving the killing of civilians not directly involved in the war effort).

    • Lance Crowe profile image

      Lance Crowe 7 years ago


      Well written. Nothing like a double standard in the global popularity contest; better known as politics ;-)