How Do You Define Terrorism?

We hear the word "terrorism" in the news practically every day. But what exactly is terrorism? There is no universally accepted definition. As one expert explains, "Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." Still, understanding the issues involved can help you better understand what's happening in the world -- and be better prepared in the event of a terrorist attack.

Some Basic Definitions
Let's start with the basics. Webster's dictionary defines terrorism as "the systematic use of terror (fear)." The FBI is a little more specific: "Terrorism is the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, for political or social objectives." Others would answer simply, "Terrorism is what happened on September 11, 2001."

Digging a Little Deeper
Once you begin to explore the topic, it becomes clear that terrorism is much like an onion: it has many layers. So more questions arise: can attacks on military personnel or political leaders be considered acts of terrorism? What about attacks on property? Must terrorism be physically violent, or is it enough to just intimidate or cause fear? Does it have to be politically motivated?

The answers to such questions vary widely as different countries and different "experts" spin their definitions to fit their own interests and/or beliefs. Even the U.S. government can't agree among its own agencies and departments. For example, the U.S. State Department would answer that terrorism is only commited by certain groups, not entire countries. It can get a little confusing.

Who are Terrorists?
Nowadays the popular image of a terrorist looks something like Osama bin Laden or one of the other 9/11 terrorists. But what about the people that blow up abortion clinics? Or environmentalists that put spikes in trees? And let's not forget the Oklahoma City bombing. Are these people terrorists?

How Do Terrorists Work?
Terrorists tend to choose high-profile targets. They also plan their acts to get as much media attention as possible because it helps to spread fear among a mass audience while calling attention to the terrorist cause. Terrorists often argue that they are responding to a greater wrong or are promoting a greater good.

Decide for Yourself
No matter how you answer the question, "what is terrorism?", terrorism remains a very serious and very real threat in today's world.

-- Beth Adamo

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