Defining Terrorism: Random Acts of Terror

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Mon, Oct 6 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - Terrorism

This is the start of a multi-part series on terror and counterterror, along with some other distasteful subjects. It’s a complex issue, or set of issues, both morally and practically, so I invite you all to, “Endeavor to persevere.”1

So what is terrorism? Is there more than one type? How do we distinguish between the types? Is it always immoral? Is it ever moral? How do we wage war on a technique, as in “The Global War on Terror”? How do we easily keep a straight face when someone pretends to be waging war on a technique?

(I confess; I haven’t the first clue about an answer to the last question. Really, I’ve been scratching my head on that one for thirteen years now. I did, at least, figure out how to keep a straight face while I had to, from 2001 to 2006, when I retired. But it was never easy.)

Terrorism has all kinds of definitions, ranging from the practical to the legalistic, from the objective to the purely subjective. If we truncate the FBI’s definition2 to get rid of the unnecessary legalistic verbiage, we end up with something like this: Terrorism involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are or appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

There are at least three kinds of terrorism. There may be more versions, to the existence and nuances of which I am oblivious, but I am confident that these three, at least, exist. (It may be, too, that these are all there are or can be.) These are Random Terror, Specific Terror, and Genocidal (or Civilicidal) Terror.

It may not be as obvious as the names I’ve given them imply, so, for definition’s sake, let’s go with random terror as acts of terror in which no particular person has any particular reason to think that he or anyone or anything else he particularly cares about is under any particular threat. Examples abound, from Guernica to Rotterdam to Hamburg and Dresden. I am not personally convinced that the moral fig leaf of attempting to bomb to destroy or disrupt industrial and economic targets covers much here. The doctrinal literature from before the war is clear, the statistics kept during it no less so; the intent was to terrorize a government and a civilian population into submission. In more modern days, we’ve got rocketing from Gaza and Lebanon, suicide bombing of Marines in Beirut… no need to continue, I think; we’ve all seen more than we care to of random terror over the last three quarters or so of a century.

Specific terror is different. It is, in Sir Robert Thompson’s words, “The man in the night with a knife.” It has a target or set of targets, and it can always acquire more. The targets of specific terror, know that they are targets or are likely to become such, as may their families. Sometimes things that look like specific terror are not; they’re just random terror aimed at a smaller group.

The other kind of terror is genocidal (or civilicidal). In effect, that says, “We’ll not only kill you and your family; we’ll kill everyone you ever cared about and destroy every physical trace and record of everything you ever cared about, too.” Of all the forms of terror, these are the hardest to pull off, but the most effective.

With regard to the first, which is the subject of this column, Random Terror, there was a day, oh, indeed many days, right up until about mid-March, 2004, when I’d have said it was practically useless, that no western state of any significance had ever knuckled under to random terror. I mean, had Britain given in to the Blitz? No. Had Germany surrendered after one or two of its cities were reduced to charred ruins and floating ash? No; they didn’t surrender even after just about all of its cities were ruined, and an appreciable percentage of its civilian population killed. Indeed, the more we and the British bombed, the harder the Germans fought back and the harder their civilians worked for victory. And the Japanese looked ready to take whatever we dished out forever, and to fight us with spears if that’s all they had left.

But then there was Madrid in 2004. That was a strike that killed about two hundred people and knocked out of the war not only a major ally, Spain, but with their withdrawal caused most of our allies from Central and South American to quit, too. We condemn, but let’s be honest here; had we been able to use a few bombs to kill two hundred Italian civilians in 1942, and thereby knock Italy, Bulgaria, and Finland out of their alliance with Nazi Germany, who would have hesitated?

Okay, any decent man might have hesitated. I’d like to think I would have, myself. But then that decent man starts counting up likely civilian and military casualties, if he does not knock those three allies of Nazi Germany out of the war, and says, “Bombs away.”

Or perhaps the “decent” man can’t, but let’s the war run its logical course, with hundreds of thousands of civilians needlessly killed, and a like number of soldiers. And he, all Pontius Pilate-like, can wash his hands and say, “Not my doing.” And history will, hopefully, spit at his memory because it is his doing, if he had it in his power to prevent or reduce that otherwise inevitable slaughter.

So what’s the difference? What’s the moral difference? That we were the good guys and al Qaeda isn’t? Sure, I think we are and likely so do you. But AQ thinks they are and that we’re not, which distinguishes them from nobody. The SS guards at Auschwitz, for God’s sake, thought they were the good guys. Worse, we could someday be wrong. Moreover, when you start justifying actions by “the cause,” what’s the limit? Is there a limit? Human history suggests that there is no line past which people will not go if they think they’re the good guys, with a righteous cause, which they almost always do. Was Lenin right to ask that, “If the ends do not justify the means, then what do they justify?”

Sorry, no, I don’t actually have answers here, not answers that cover a universe of bad possibilities, anyway.

Next week, we’ll look more at random terror and how fruitless it normally is.


2 Remember, I redacted the legalistic aspects. They’re no doubt important to the FBI, but not terribly useful to us, here and now.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Why Climate Change is a Defense Issue.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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