At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

What is Terrorism? Who is a Terrorist?

The word “terrorism” is not all that easy to define. Yet we wouldn’t know this given the wild indiscriminateness with which it’s applied.  The following five scenarios supply us with examples of this.

(1)Those Muslims on the battlefields of such places as Iraq and Afghanistan are Islamic.  Obviously, they are also killing, or trying to kill, American soldiers.  Therefore, they are terrorists.

(2) An enraged mob attacks an American embassy in Benghazzi on September 11, 2012.  An American ambassador and a couple of servicemen are killed.  The mob consists of Muslims.  Thus, they are terrorists.

(3)Nidal Malik Hasan, a United States Army Medical Corps officer, goes on a shooting spree in 2009 that ends with 13 fellow service personnel dead.   Hasan is a Muslim.  Therefore, he is a terrorist.


(4) The perpetrators of September 11, 2001, an event that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 American civilians, were Islamic.  So, they were terrorists.

(5) The brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing that killed and maimed American civilians were Muslim.  Therefore, they are terrorists.

Situations (1)-(3) involve non-civilian targets, agents of the United States government.  But if Islamic “terrorists” are terrorists because they target American soldiers and/or representatives of the American government, then it would seem that, say, the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor also qualify as “terrorists.”

Is it because the Japanese were state actors, agents acting on behalf of their government, that we don’t think of them along these lines?


This can’t be right.

For starters, the state/non-state distinction can all too easily be turned around to show that it is impossible to be at “war” with non-state actors.  While it is possible for, say, the American government to be at war with the governments of Iraq, Syria, or any other country, it is no more possible for the United States to wage war against Al-Qaeda or “Islamism” or “Islamo-Fascism” than it is possible for it to wage war against Timothy McVeigh or Bill Ayers.

Maybe the Japanese were terrorists.  But then so too are own soldiers who kill the government agents of those on whom we wage war.

Situations (4) and (5) involve attacks against civilians.  This by itself doesn’t prove that they the assailants are terrorists, though.


We should recall that a person who causes terror isn’t necessarily a terrorist.  Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murderer Adam Lanza spread terror, yet we do not treat him as a terrorist.  This is because a terrorist is motivated to instill terror for the sake of a purpose, namely, a political, theological, or otherwise ideological purpose.

The killers in (4) and (5) appeared to be motivated by such a purpose. Perhaps they are indeed terrorists.  Yet if this is the case, then those governments that carpet bomb civilian populations in war are alike composed of terrorists.

The objection that “democracies” don’t intend to kill civilians—even if they foresee them—relies upon the Catholic doctrine of “double-effect.”    As the distinguished 20th century Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe noted, to use the doctrine in this way is to abuse it. The abusers, she wrote, would have us think that “by making a little speech to yourself: ‘What I mean to be doing is’” this, not that, we achieve “a marvelous way…of making any action lawful.”


For example, a person who starts shooting off a gun in a mall, say, and winds up hitting or killing bystanders, might appeal to the doctrine of double-effect by saying that he never intended to kill anyone. He only intended to shoot off his gun.  That someone was shot is but an “accidental,” not an “essential,” aspect of the situation.

Immediately, we recognize that this is unacceptable.  No less unacceptable, though, is the idea that we didn’t intend to kill civilians when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Anscombe writes: “It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end.  Otherwise there is absolutely no substance to the Pauline teaching that we may not do evil that good may come.”

Perhaps it is best that we don’t think much about the meaning of “terrorism.”  We may not like what we discover once we begin to go down this path.




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