Terrorism destroys countless lives with every passing day. Given that it is an ever-increasing threat, governments have designed varying policy frameworks to cope with this epidemic. Some states have ordered full-fledged military operations, while others have paved the way for negotiations.  Whichever step governments may take, there is still a concern that they overlook, namely the need for a lucid definition of terrorism. After all, the designation of someone as a terrorist is relative and consequently, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This confusion, which some argue is designed, is illustrated by Schmidt and Youngman pointing out that there 109 different ways of defining terrorism. Political scientists have dug beneath the surface, and understood that having such vague parameters for definition has wider consequences.

While there have been varying definitions of terrorism, there is still a broad consensus amongst intellectuals and states alike that violence and terror are inflicted for the achievement of political ends. These ends could be political, economic or religious. Often times, terrorism is a means of achieving ‘freedom’, and the tag of liberation is commonly associated with such violence by those who commit it. Perpetrators do not consider themselves terrorist groups, but rather ‘freedom fighters’, fighting for a cause that they ascribe an undying legitimacy to.

In a world where the definition of terrorism varies with time and perspective, there is a pressing need to understand what terrorism is. It is only when we attempt to strengthen our understanding that we will be in a position to curb this threat. It is interesting to observe that The State Department Bulletin contains vague definitions such as, “Terrorism is a threat to Western Civilization”.

Terrorism is often loosely defined like this to enable governments to evade accountability. This is because their actions are not labeled as terrorist in most cases due to the legitimacy normally associated with a government’s actions. Even the media heeds to the state’s conception of terrorism. This observation also applies to atrocities committed in times of war, and provides governments with additional freedom to abuse their power in the name of national security. A prominent example of this phenomenon can be found in General Augusto Pinochet, who tortured and politically imprisoned more than 40,000 people during his reign. This number also includes 3, 399 women who were sexually abused. Despite his abhorrent acts, he did not receive the treatment that terrorist groups do, simply due to his control over the Chilean state machinery. When we look at the numerical ratio of atrocities committed by states to that of so-called terrorist organizations, it is certainly an eye-opener. Hannah Arendt states that totalitarian domination is at the core of terror, and it is certain that governments have fulfilled this criterion for terrorism. Individuals, therefore, must challenge the dominant narrative that governs their understanding of terrorism, as they currently are turning a blind eye to ‘state terrorism’.  

The chances of military operations gaining public support increase significantly if they are against an organization defined as ‘terrorist’, due to the strong connotations that the word carries. The USA justifies intervention and warfare by appealing to sentiments against terrorist groups at large.  Further, global problems merit global solutions, and this principle strongly applies to terrorism as the absence of a clear definition undermines the strength of our efforts to lessen this threat. One of the ways in which governments of the world can deal with terrorism is by agreeing upon a shared, common definition. An essential characteristic of this definition needs to be fairness. It needs to be all-inclusive, and the state should not be favored by such a definition. An act of terror remains an act of terror and should entail the same consequences, regardless of whether it is the IRA or the French government pulling the strings.

Governments are accused of adopting double-standards when it comes to the notion of terrorism. Under President Ronald Reagan, the United States of America cooperated with the Pakistani Intelligence to recruit soldiers who came to be known as the Mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. Funding worth billions of Dollars was used in this task, and of course, healthy supplies of ammunition factored into the equation. Osama Bin Laden was also one of those that caught the eye of the United States, and he was an essential component in the battle against the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the USA at that time would not have imagined that they would have to suffer at the hands of their creation, especially one that they would have considered a success. Osama Bin Laden turned against the USA after the continued presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia as they were encroaching upon the Holy Land. As long as the Mujahedeen were fighting against the Soviets, they were, in the infamous words of President Reagan, the ‘moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers’, but when they turned against their former ally, they became terrorists and were treated as the same. The Mujahedeen’s acts of terror against the Soviets, as well as the American Government, and such actions should be labeled as such, regardless of who they were carried out against.

Preference has no place when it comes to defining terrorism, and neither does motive. Moreover, the United States of America wins a fair chunk of responsibility when it comes to the prevalence of terrorism, as they themselves, through the creation of the Mujahedeen, enabled it. Irrespective of who we consider to be right or wrong here, the important observation to make is that efforts to curb this terrorism only perpetuated a cycle of violence which has not ended to date.

What is required, then, is for the use of terror to be considered an absolute moral wrong, irrespective of its aims or consequences. The need to protect the public generates a range of civil rights, with the most pertinent right here being “an absolute right not to be made the intended victims of a homicidal project”, a right which all innocent persons have until they forfeit it. If this series of atrocities such as those in Peshawar are to end, double-standards need to be avoided and a fair, universal, all-encompassing definition of terrorism needs to be agreed upon. A step that seems as simple as this could perhaps change the way the world looks at terrorism and consequently, its response.

The writer is a student at Aitchison College, Lahore.