Defining Terrorism

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There are many differing definitions of terrorism. What is terrorism? How do we define it? Why is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter? These are just a few of the questions that face the world on a daily basis. There are many challenges that face the international community when it comes to how to define terrorism and what it constitutes. This paper will explore the challenges facing scholars when it comes to labeling terror and discuss potential ways to properly define it.

Challenges in Defining Terrorism

Finding a proper, well-accepted definition of what constitutes terror is extremely difficult. There are many challenges that confront scholars, experts, and everyday people when it comes to defining terrorism and terrorists. Differing backgrounds and cultures of those defining terror in addition to differing histories are just one of the many challenges facing those that wish to define terror. Furthermore, labeling a group or an individual as a terrorist could be considered offensive, especially in today’s politically correct environment, potentially damaging those in the political arena. However, on the flip side, labeling someone as a terrorist can also serve a political purpose as in the case of being propaganda towards a war effort, or to help define an enemy. Nevertheless, the main problem with not being able to have a widely accepted definition of terrorism is that “It is impossible to formulate or enforce international agreements against terrorism” (Ganor, 300).

The problem with the definitions that are out there is that they are so numerous and vary so widely, it’s difficult to determine which is more accurate. Each state, nation and government has their own definition. Acc...

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...s been offered by James Rinehart who feels that the “Definition must focus on the acts of terrorists, not simply labeling the actors and must have a “Political agenda: a specific set of grievances of demands that are of utmost importance to the actors willing to use terror” (14).

Finally, Ganz suggests that we limit the definition to include civilian noncombatants only, in accordance with the Geneva conventions. His definition is “Terrorism is the international use of, or threat to use, violence against civilians or against civilian targets in order to attain political aims” (294).


There will always be confusion with defining terror as long as there remains biases and stereotypes. As long we can step outside of the stereotypes and focus on real research, only then can we start to understand the full complexities of terror and what it involves.

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