The Continued Cheapening of the Word "Terrorism"

Now labor strikes are terrorism:

The Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) said today it was planning a 24-hour strike by rail workers on July 17, the busiest day of the Catholic event.

It is the day Pope Benedict XVI will make his way through the streets of Sydney during the afternoon peak.

The NSW Government will take the matter to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) tomorrow.

Mr Iemma said his Government would not cave in to the RTBU.

“The Government will not be blackmailed into giving them what they want as a result of these industrial terror tactics,” he said.

That’s Morris Iemma, the Premier of New South Wales.

Terrorism is a heinous crime, and a serious international problem. It’s not a catchall word to describe anything you don’t like or don’t agree with, or even anything that adversely affects a large number of people. By using the word more broadly than its actual meaning, we muddy the already complicated popular conceptions of the issue. The word “terrorism” has a specific meaning, and we shouldn’t debase it.

Posted on July 8, 2008 at 6:10 AM74 Comments


Hagbard_C July 8, 2008 6:36 AM

“The word “terrorism” has a specific meaning, and we shouldn’t debase it.”

Thank you, I wish our politicians (European, American and others) would take that one to heart.

Peter Galbavy July 8, 2008 6:37 AM

Sadly the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” have now been subverted by Western despots to be used as the whip to drive us, the sheeple, to do their bidding. At one point, prior to the defining tragedy that was 9/11, it was words like “paedophile” and “drugs” but now the anonymous outsider that is, typically, the Muslim invader or any “illegal immigrant” is now the ideal scapegoat to divert attention from the true crimes being carried out using our names and our resources.

Bernie July 8, 2008 6:49 AM

While I totally agree with you, Bruce, I fear that we may have already lost this fight. Does anybody else think that we might be banging our heads against a brick wall?

Richard Braakman July 8, 2008 6:59 AM

We might be at the point where it’s better to start pushing the other way. Let’s help water down “terror” until it’s meaningless and no-one takes the accusations seriously anymore. Then we just need a new word to mean what terrorism meant last decade.

(I was about to say “what terrorism originally meant”, but its original meaning was to describe a form of government that ruled by fear. Hmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?)

Chris Hardie July 8, 2008 7:10 AM

As George Lakoff and others who study language have shown us, hearing a word has a direct physiological impact on us, and when we hear a word used a certain way over and over, the frames (mental models, meanings) that come with it become hardwired into our brains. I suspect that the frame of terrorism as “anything we don’t like or agree with” is well on its way to being hardwired in many brains across the globe.

Any hope for returning us to its original and proper meaning does not only require that it not be used improperly any more, but that it also be repeatedly used properly on a wide scale, to rewire our brains again. It’s hard to picture that happening in the current environment.

(As suggested by another commenter, another approach is to keep diluting the frame further, such that no one feels comfortable using the word any more because they’re not sure it will represent their intended meaning, e.g. “I gave my friend an engraved terrorism for his birthday,” or “I’ll have terrorist combo meal #5, please.”)

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be calling out those who use the word improperly, and reminding those who bother to think about it that there is a much different definition. Thanks for doing that here, Mr. Schneier.


Lars July 8, 2008 7:11 AM

We, the sheeple.

@Peter: I really do like this word and hope it will be used more often (to reflect the kind of thinking that has been adapted widely by the people)

I don’t want to cry murder, but this repetitive mention of “the enemy” is almost intentionally used to rally people for a cause while completely trying to avoid the real problems. Pitty thingy, because if a term becomes useable for everything it doesn’t differentiat anything anymore. Soon you will be able to point a “terrorist” into any direction and at any time the sheeple will follow.

“No, we have never been at war with Redland. The Reds have always been our friends. We are allied against Blueland.” (quote free from Mr. Orwell.)

Lars July 8, 2008 7:14 AM

@Chris: very interesting terrorism you have there. Just terrorize everyone by using the word and it will become completely terroristic.

Secure July 8, 2008 7:29 AM

When anything is denoted as terrorism, then all these nice new laws passed to fight terrorism can be used against these issues as well. It is a feature, not a bug. Simply look around — the Mafia (Music and film industries association) is already licking all fingers and toes to do exactly this. Still waiting for the moment when downloading copyrighted material is denoted as an act of terrorism — and fought appropriately.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2008 7:41 AM

IS it me or have we been hear befor with the term “Hacker”…

Me thinks that words and how they effect you might just be a good definer of your age (now that Botox and Plastic surgery are so common 8)

My “pet hate” word is “init” it actually appears to have little or no fixed meaning and almost appears to have reached the status of a swear word.

Simpson July 8, 2008 8:26 AM

Actually, I didn’t think terrorism was a crime. Isn’t it distinct from both acts of war and crime? Terrorism is politically motivated acts of violence carried out by non-State sponsored entities. This is what is so insidious about it – terrorists cannot be treated like international criminals, yet they’re not armed militia, either.

L'Enfant July 8, 2008 8:30 AM

We the Sheeple of the Entitled States, in Order to form a more perfect Kakistocracy, establish Wealth,
insure domestic Following, provide for the common defence against Terrorism, promote global Mistrust, and secure the Blessings of Taxes to our Leaders and our Owners, do ordain and establish this
Constitution for the Entitled States of Afraidia.

Or something like that…

SteveJ July 8, 2008 8:52 AM

@Simpson: “I didn’t think terrorism was a crime”

In any jurisdiction that matters, blowing people up (or otherwise deliberately killing people without specific mitigating factors such as self-defence) is a serious crime.

In many jurisdictions there are further statutory offences which relate specifically to terrorism (for whatever definition of terrorism lawmakers specify and/or judges infer).

So I don’t think you can say that terrorism “isn’t a crime”. It’s against the law, and people are convicted for doing it. How’s that not a crime?

Terrorists usually can be treated like international criminals, and often are.

There are cases of confusion whether a group are terrorists or not: for example, when a non-governmental insurgency/resistance attacks military targets. The government (or occupier as the case may be) obviously wants to label that activity terrorism in order to restrict civilian and international support for the insurgency / resistance.

The waters are often further muddied where the same paramilitary group also attacks civilian targets, and so is engaged in terrorism in addition to its role as a militia. And the situation sometimes beggars neutral belief if the government / occupier is actually killing more civilians through “legitimate military activity” than the insurgents / resistance are killing through “terrorist attacks”.

But that’s an argument over what is or isn’t “terrorism”, with some politics thrown in to make the label less likely to stick to the stronger party. It doesn’t mean that the people in question can’t be treated either as criminals or as militias: you can even consider them as both. When members of militias commit crimes they can be tried in criminal courts.

Thomas July 8, 2008 8:56 AM

Excuse me but… where can I find an exact definition of the term “terrorism”?
As far as I know, the term terrorism was used by the one or the other to figure out that their opponents are bad. The term is not defined exactly and though it will be used every time someone wants to stress the (from his point of view) evil of an action.

Jared Kells July 8, 2008 9:06 AM

You can’t control language, English is a dynamic changing thing.

Gay used to mean happy, then homosexual and now increasingly as an insult among youth not related to sexuality.

Words change meaning all the time and I feel terrorism has already changed. I don’t think it’s a problem itself. The problem is when you use the word when writing legislation.

Beta July 8, 2008 9:06 AM


“Terrorism is politically motivated acts of violence carried out by non-State sponsored entities. ”

I like my definition better: the practice of attacking randomly chosen members of a target population, in order to keep the entire target population in a state of constant fear. This definition describes a tactic, not just a motive and a source of funds (this “non-state sponsored” bit seems invented by statesmen to rule themselves out). It involves fear, which seems appropriate. And look at the cases where the two definitions disagree, like the American colonials fighting the British troops in the 1770’s, or the lynching of a black man in Alabama, or uniformed troops making an example of some poor farmer in a military dictatorship, or a suicide bomber whose equipment was paid for by a state.

Thomas July 8, 2008 9:06 AM

One more example:

During the G7-summit in germany we hab a lot of demonstrations against the politics of G7. Some years ago it was just called a “violation of the public peace” (Landfriedensbruch) when it came to violence. In that year every sign of violence or even the idea of preparation to violence called an act of terrorism.
So terrorism is not an exactly defined term but an dyseuphemism used to diskredit opponents.

Carlo Graziani July 8, 2008 9:08 AM

Really, this is following a long tradition. Many political terms that used to have a specific, possibly technical, and concept-laden meaning, have degenerated through common usage into vague terms of obloquy.

Nowadays, “Fascism” is nearly unusable as a term of historical analysis or debate, while more often than not “Racism” appears to mean “public disagreement with a non-white/non-Western person”. The meaning of the term “Liberal” became unrecognizable when conservative attack skunks adopted it as their political anal scent gland.

“Terrorism” was simply too convenient and too close-to-hand not to be pressed into service in this way.

Armchair Dissident July 8, 2008 9:10 AM

Simpson’s pretty much hit the nail on the head. “Terrorism” isn’t a crime. “Terrorism” is an ideology or a tactic that uses mass-murder and destruction of property in an attempt to induce fear. The crimes are the mass-murder and the destruction of property.

The problem is that respective governments – and the newspapers that report on them – have completely co-opted a word representing an ideology into a word representing a specific form of crime, because it is convenient and useful for them to do so. How else do you pass draconian “anti-terror” legislation that never defines “terrorism”, but nevertheless give police carte-blance to do whatever they want (I’m thinking in particular of the police “stop-and-search” powers in the UK).

If the governments were really interested in preventing terror, they’d revoke all the “we must accept that we live in a post 9/11 world now” anti-terror legislation that scares the bejebus out of me. After all, given the choice between a bomber who kills 50, and a police force (UK) that kills over 100 each year, I know which I’m more scared of!

Jared Kells July 8, 2008 9:11 AM

Actually it’s not even a problem using a word in legislation that then changes meaning.

The problem is reading the legislation and enfrocing it not in the spirit in which it was written but using the newer meaning of the words.

Bob July 8, 2008 9:14 AM

Terrorism is a program of attacks against civilians, aimed at making them desperate enough to accept any change that promises to protect them.

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

SteveJ July 8, 2008 9:20 AM

@Simpson again:

Come to think of it, I dispute your definition: “Terrorism is politically motivated acts of violence carried out by non-State sponsored entities.”

Some non-state political violence is not terrorism: for example in a civil war the revolutionary forces are not necessarily terrorists (although nowadays I’m sure any national government would label them as such, for the political advantage it brings). They’re only terrorists if they direct violence against civilian targets in order to coerce the civilian population through fear.

As another example, beating up a policeman in order to reach the target of a demonstration is clearly violent, and clearly politically-motivated. It’s criminal, but I wouldn’t call it “terrorism” since there is no intent to engender fear of violence as a political tool.

Conversely, terrorism can be state-sponsored. For example, if one state sponsors a terrorist organisation in another country, the things that organisation does don’t suddenly cease being terrorism. Consider Hezbollah (sponsored by Syria and Iran) if you’re pro-America, and the CONTRAS in Nicaragua (sponsored by the Reagan administration) if you’re anti-.

However, your definition is certainly on to something, since there are tactics which are generally described as “terrorist” when conducted by non-state actors, but not by state actors. Basically, an army can blow up civilians in order to coerce compliance, and not get called terrorists. A non-state-actor can’t. But being a state actor (e.g. a standing military force) is a much more specific condition that merely being sponsored by a state.

Martin July 8, 2008 9:23 AM

The meaning of the word “terrorism” already changed. It used to describe (see Hobbes, 17th century) policy of the state. Voltaire used the term in 18th century to describe the pre-revolution system (i.e. negative) and Robespierre the post-revolution system (positive, of course). Only recently, the term terrorism is applied to non-state actions, e.g. by the nazis to describe actions of partisans.

mclaren July 8, 2008 9:34 AM

Bruce Schneier is absolutely right, of course, and what’s alarming here is the steepness of the absurd mission creep along which the alleged “war on terror” has descended with breathtaking speed into classifying minor nuisances and “blue law” violations as so-called “terrorism.”

Originally, the Patriot Act and the TSA and similar acts and agencies in Britain were set up to identify and combat real, actual terrorists. Scary guys with bombs. Actual people planning mass murder.

But now the British anti-terror laws are being used to get CCTV cameras to identify people who let their dogs poop on the sidewalk. And in America, the new anti-terror customs & immigration laws are being used to snoop through travellers’ laptops searching for pornography.

What business is it of the British government whether people let dogs crap on the sidewalk? What business is it of the U.S. government whether some traveler has a picture of a naked girl buried deep in some folder on hi/r laptop?

At this rate, it may not be too far a stretch to imagine armed U.S. military troops doing combat sweeps through American cities armed with 20mm gatling guns and armored personnel carriers, breaking down the doors of people suspected of eating food that’s too fattening. The perpetrators will doubtless be described as “dietary terrorists.”

Harry July 8, 2008 9:42 AM

Thank you, THOMAS and BETA. I agree that what Bruce posted about isn’t terrorism, was aware that terrorism isn’t well defined, and find beta’s definition good enough.

Mark July 8, 2008 9:44 AM

@Chris Samuel
To be honest I’m not really surprised by that statement by Iemma, this is the same government who has introduced a $5,500 fine for “annoying” pilgrims who will be attending the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day.

Maybe what’s needed is a “Citizen’s Enforcement Officer” to fine foreigners who annoy regular Australians.

Jeff July 8, 2008 10:11 AM

This is certainly not an example of Terrorism, however, I have seen Union strikes that did use Terror tactics.

Tesla July 8, 2008 10:23 AM

I agree with Richard Braakman on this one: the definition that was in effect 7 years ago is irretrievably lost. So let’s co-opt the word and take its bite away.

(I particularly admire the way that the queer community did this with the word – you guessed it – “queer.”)

If enough things are labeled “terrorism,” the label can no longer be an excuse for circumventing justice. Although in the case of the terrorists who tagged my garage, I almost wish it could. 🙂

list-the-ways dept. July 8, 2008 10:31 AM

“Nearly three decades after its inception, the state sponsors of terrorism list is not just about terrorism. It has become a diplomatic tool to win concessions from U.S. adversaries eager to end the stigma and sanctions that come with the designation. It may also be too blunt a tool to be used against strategically important countries, even if the terrorism link appears clear-cut.”

“James Lewis, a former State Department official who worked on sanctions in the Bill Clinton administration, said the list gives the United States leverage on non-terrorism issues.”

Terror used to get leverage on other issues is a diplomatic tool. It takes a politician five minutes to say what it takes a diplomat a week to say and with less words. Then there’s the chance of landing on some watch list to keep you in line or waiting in line.

before-and-after dept. July 8, 2008 10:57 AM

“Before 9/11, the government’s list of suspected terrorists banned from air travel totaled just 16 names; today there are 44,000. And that doesn’t include people the government thinks should be pulled aside for additional security screening. There are another 75,000 people on that list.”
“It’s awful, it’s bad. I mean you’ve got people who are dead on the list. You’ve got people you know are 80 years old on the list. It makes no sense.”

Take the dead off the list. They won’t be flying. With high fares and fees, neither will more of the living. People are now putting themselves on the do not fly list. Terrorism is making flying more costly and oil is more fuel on the fire. Terrorism doesn’t cheapen anything. It can’t. The rest is word play.

Anonymous July 8, 2008 11:02 AM

Not sure about Australia, but least in America, there’s a long and bloody history of regarding labor organizers as terrorists.

The right to organize was not won peacefully.

Anybody here remember Joe Hill? Or did all of you only learn the history that’s taught in school?

Anyhow, it ain’t nothing new to call organized labor names like “industrial terrorism”.

wr July 8, 2008 11:09 AM

I say go back to the roots of what terrorism is: the use of violence by the State to impose its power, which was elevated as a doctrine in France 200 years ago (

E.g. the US is currently a terrorist state: it arrests people randomly under the patriot act, and detains people indefinitely without trial.

The agenda is clear: don’t mess with the Order and the government.

Idiots driving planes in buildings are just that — no clear agenda (although it gives plenty of opportunity for a State to then use Terrorism against its people).

Actually, I remember an interesting discussion on shifting semantics of the word ‘terrorism’ in one of Chomsky’s books, where he was already noting the shift towards “anything we don’t like” (must be “pirates and emperors”).

j July 8, 2008 11:18 AM

i have been trying to get the kiddies to use the word terror like the word cool for some time now.

anonymous canuck July 8, 2008 11:36 AM

I have no doubt the meaning of terrorism is in flux and people holding to Bruce’s definition are going to loose this battle.

Language is indeed dynamic. Some are gradual and others quite abrupt. There are lots of examples:

Dictionaries froze spelling but not pronunciation. Even now we have common words like “grocery” that are changing. Not to mention the great UK/US split over ‘ise” versus “ize”.

“Hacker” has been mentioned before. Despite all of the technology and security arguments, golfers had a prior claim. Even funnier is that an unorganized group of self proclaimed individualists with a passion for freeing information get all proprietary over something outside of their control. This is both ironic and hilarious.

(Computer) “Virus” had a specific meaning but is now generally understood to be just about any kind of malware.

“Planet” is being argued over as a result of the reclassification of Pluto.

Anything you carefully define can be usurped by the media, politicians, and the general public. Never underesimate the impact on language of 99% of the population with a 1% understanding of the subtleties.

Of course this is why good dictionaries carry old meanings. It’s also why a lot of legislation contains definitions.

Of course we could follow the French and officially revise our language every few years [he says ducking for cover].

anonymous canuck July 8, 2008 11:38 AM

… I’m not in agreement with the change and stupid usage of the word. I just don’t think the shift in meaning can be stopped.

Temujin July 8, 2008 12:16 PM

The same thing happened to the word cult. People generally use it to mean “a religion that I think is different.”

Billy July 8, 2008 12:34 PM

“The word “terrorism” has a specific meaning, and we shouldn’t debase it.” –Bruce Schneier

I’m sorry Bruce, but I disagree, and here’s why. Terrorism, (both the word, and the act) are being abused by tyrannical leaders to thwart liberty in the most vile of ways. These tyrannical leaders are able to do that because of the ‘edge’ that the word Terrorism has. It evokes emotion because it is a strong word, and that emotion can coerce people. I hope entirely that the word comes into common usage, and looses all of it’s force. E.G. If a vending machine eats your quarter, that’s terrorism, and them people will stop giving up their liberty in the name of preventing terrorism.

The abuse of the word is already happening, and the abuse isn’t speaking the word incorrectly; It’s ruining American liberty and American’s privacy. The ultimate dissolution of the word will protect liberty by extinguishing the anti-terrorism agenda.

And so far as recognising actual terrorist threats to prevent them? It’s a lost cause because terrorism is human nature. You can only move threats around (Off planes and onto subway cars.) Terrorism can never actually go away, so there’s no point in everyone running around in a panic over it.

Anonymous July 8, 2008 12:38 PM

Here’s a couple paragraphs, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, for all of you who never learned…


Fifty-three strikers, labeled by local newspapers as a “rebel gang,” were arrested on January 1, 1917, and sentenced for allegedly taking over a bunkhouse in Camp 41 near Cusson, Minnesota. There they reportedly slept in bunks not assigned to them, ordered themselves fed, intimidated non-striking workers, and ran the cook out of camp. It apparently was of little concern to authorities that the arrested strikers were transported for eight hours in one unheated boxcar and in some cases nearly froze to death, or that no one could identify the men or testify to the tardily-arrived-at charges. In mid-January another 40 men, charged with obstructing the sidewalk in front of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Company employment office in Duluth and with distributing handbills about the strike, were similarly arrested and sentenced.

The reaction of the local press to the lumberjacks’ strike was close to hysterical. On January 1, for example, the Daily Virginian ran the headline, “Armed Squads of IWW’s Drive Lumberjacks Out of Camps,” over a report that described the “reign of terrorism” and “gun attacks” conducted by Wobblies who were “looting the camps” and would stop at “nothing short of arson and murder.” The Minneapolis Tribune repeated all this and added well-poisoning and horse-crippling to the list of IWW acts. These charges were repeated many times by company officials, hostile legislators, county sheriffs, and a management-oriented press, although not a single specific instance of any of the accusations could ever be documented. No one, during the strike or in the investigation that followed, could be found who witnessed any burning, looting, shooting, or even threatening use of firearms. No victims were identified or came forward. No one was ever tried for these crimes for the reason that they probably never were committed.


“Revolt of the ‘Timber Beasts’: IWW Lumber Strike in Minnesota” by John E. Haynes, Minnesota History Quarterly, vol.42, no.5, pp.163-174, (spring 1971).

Davi Ottenheimer July 8, 2008 1:04 PM

Aha, well let’s go back to the root of the term as Martin suggests above:

“If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror — virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.”

Robespierre, 1794

Food for thought:

“NADLER: Were declared homicides?

WILKERSON: Right, starting as early as December 2001 in Afghanistan.

NADLER: And these were homicides committed by people engaged in interrogations?

WILKERSON: Or in guarding prisoners, or something like that. People who were in detention.

NADLER: They were in detention, not trying to escape or anything, declared homicides by our own authorities.”

“The American colonel, troubled by what he was hearing, tried to stall at first. But the declassified record shows he finally told his South Korean counterpart it ‘would be permitted’ to machine-gun 3,500 political prisoners, to keep them from joining approaching enemy forces.”

Grizzled Cynic July 8, 2008 1:54 PM

The term ‘terrorism’ has escaped the literal world and taken up life in the figurative world. It is now as much metaphorical as ‘predator’ has become in crime.

I was once hunted for my flesh, so I know what a predator is.

By allowing anti-terrorist laws to escape into the figurative world, so that anything that reminds me of terrorism is terrorism, and our limited resources will be squandered entertaining all the Chicken Littles among us. Meanwhile, real acts of domestic terrorism escape notice, and justice. For example, the LAPD and the FBI.

Red Emma July 8, 2008 1:56 PM

“Now”…I dunno. There are those owners of capital that have ALWAYS considered any organized labor action as a terrorist act. Maybe that’s why they always order thier goons to shoot first?

Found this Wired Quiz “Quiz: What Should You Really Fear?” Interesting point…I only watch TV for NOVA and My Name is Earl these days and but I DID NOT KNOW we had a suicide bomber in the US in 2005 and I look for that kinda thing.

Bernhard July 8, 2008 1:58 PM

I think we should not event use the term “Terrorist”.
By singling out the people from other criminals we give them what they want.

“Terrorists” should be called and treated as criminals, nothings else. Bad criminals, but criminals.

mr.smoot July 8, 2008 3:19 PM

In Pennsylvania, “terroristic threats” seem to include anything from a bomb threat to threatening to kill someone who kicks you out of a bar. I guess “assault” just isn’t cool enough anymore.

From Wilkes-Barre’s Times-Leader:
• Michael T. Walter, 37, of Wilkes-Barre, was arrested at 10:17 p.m. Saturday and charged with making terroristic threats after he allegedly made several threats to kill the owner of the Villa Grove Cafe after he was told to leave the bar at 125 Grove St. for allegedly being disorderly.

Legal statute text:

Davi Ottenheimer July 8, 2008 3:49 PM

@ Papers

Glad you noticed. Here is a nice summary of the word origins:

“Confronted by a monarchical Europe united in opposition to revolutionary France — old Europe, they might have called it — the Jacobins rooted out domestic political dissent. It was the beginning of the period that would become infamous as the Terror.

Among the Jacobins’ greatest triumphs was their ability to appropriate the rhetoric of patriotism — Le Patriote Français was the title of Brissot’s newspaper — and to promote their political program through a tightly coordinated network of newspapers, political hacks, pamphleteers and political clubs.

Even the Jacobins’ dress distinguished ‘true patriots’: those who wore badges of patriotism like the liberty cap on their heads, or the cocarde tricolore (a red, white and blue rosette) on their hats or even on their lapels.

Insisting that their partisan views were identical to the national will, believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent. Political opponents were treasonous, stabbing France and the Revolution in the back.

To defend the nation from its enemies, Jacobins expanded the government’s police powers at the expense of civil liberties, endowing the state with the power to detain, interrogate and imprison suspects without due process. Policies like the mass warrantless searches undertaken in 1792 — ‘domicilary visits,’ they were called — were justified, according to Georges Danton, the Jacobin leader, ‘when the homeland is in danger.'”

It appears, from the perspective of the word’s history, that those who aimed to silence dissent under the guise of patriotism, those who persecuted anyone who questioned excessive state security measures…those were the original “terrorists”.

xd0s July 8, 2008 4:20 PM

@Davi: Great references, thanks!

“Among the Jacobins’ greatest triumphs was their ability to appropriate the rhetoric of patriotism”

Faux News and the right wing blog-o-sphere?

“Even the Jacobins’ dress distinguished ‘true patriots’: those who wore badges of patriotism”

Flag Lapel pins?

“Insisting that their partisan views were identical to the national will, believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent.”

You’re either with us or against us…

To defend the nation from its enemies, Jacobins expanded the government’s police powers at the expense of civil liberties, endowing the state with the power to detain, interrogate and imprison suspects without due process.

Enemy combatant status, Gitmo, and “extraordinary rendition”

It appears, from the perspective of the word’s history, that those who aimed to silence dissent under the guise of patriotism, those who persecuted anyone who questioned excessive state security measures…those were the original “terrorists”.

How much more familiar does it have to be?

Anonymous July 8, 2008 6:47 PM

People are busy making money, not worried about this. Move on, it’s just a word. All worked up and you can’t do a thing about it. All you can do is work around it.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2008 9:49 PM

@ Anonymous,

“People are busy making money, not worried about this. Move on, it’s just a word. ”

Unfortunatly you can not.

As noted above the war on terror is costing so much it has effectivly diverted the free market into “war production”. Where the only people making money are those engaged in making the situation worse.

The late and much missed Douglas Adams made a joke in one of his books about a planet that became uninhabited because the economy became centered around shoes, where it only became economicaly viable to make and sell shoes. The result was that the populace with foresight and not involved with shoes got out while it was still viable for them to do so. Those that remained sunk into poverty and died out.

Perhaps those in countries not involved in the “war on terror” that are currently not seeing the begining of a major economic down turn and to which manufacturing and other jobs are moving to have the right idea…

michael July 8, 2008 10:59 PM

I think Bruce is
(1) verballing Morris
(2) taking Morris out of context.

According to the quote as reported, Morris did not call the strikes terrorism.

And its ok to use a word outside of the context of US security policy. I think you can have terror without having an act of terrorism.

Of course it’s a strong way to characterize the experience of confusion and disruption that are the intended result of of the tactics.

Flotsam July 9, 2008 2:48 AM

H.L. Mencken was right when he said:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Neil July 9, 2008 3:28 AM

“where can I find an exact definition of the term “terrorism”?”

How about

  1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
  2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
  3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

That seems to describe the action the union was making. So what was Bruce’s point?

another thomas July 9, 2008 4:20 AM

“The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorize himself.” —Grand Rapids, Mich., Jan. 29, 2003

Harry July 9, 2008 9:24 AM

I think Davi Ottenheimer should have mentioned that his excerpt came from an Op Ed in the New York Times and not, say, from an encyclopedia.

Despite the author’s authority (he’s a historian at Univ of Montreal), Op Eds are opinion pieces and the veracity of their content is not assured.

Hellfire July 9, 2008 11:27 AM

Maybe public figures should continue to use the word “terrorist” inappropriately. Eventually, when calling things like graffiti, theft, parking violations, etc “terrorist” acts becomes the norm it wont have much meaning anymore, will it? It will lose its power to control people. Then we will have to invent a new word for real terrorism.

Davi Ottenheimer July 9, 2008 12:37 PM

@ Harry

Yawn. People are free to look up further details once they have the reference. That’s the point of a reference, eh?

Perhaps you should have mentioned that your opinion came from an anonymous source with NO REFERENCE.

Anonymous opinion pieces about the opinion pieces of others and the veracity of their content is less assured than the veracity of the opinion pieces they hope to cast into question.

I believe Kafka might be able to explain the absurdity of your position to you better than I. Then again, he did not write in an Encyclopedic format so you might be stuck.

David Keech July 9, 2008 8:39 PM

I am visiting my parents in Australia at the moment and I saw this on the news a few nights ago. My parents were aghast that a union would consider disrupting public transport on a day with such an event planned. I was aghast that the premier would refer to the strike as “industrial terrorism”.

My brother and his wife live in this area and will be affected by the strike. Should I call them and tell them to get out of the city to save their lives ? Are they in any danger of violence ?

There is no “terror” involved here. There is “inconvenience” but nothing more than that.

The two main political parties here in Australia are known as “Liberal” and “Labor” rather than “Republican” and “Democrat”.

The general idea is that the Labor party (Who, for some unknown reason spell their own name incorrectly…) are for the people (the labourers) and the Liberal party are for the aristocracy. Of course, this idea is not accurate any more but the names persist.

Iemma has been at the head of labour unions and involved in the Labor party all his life and yet, strangely, when a labour union wants to make the most impact possible by striking during a time when it will inconvenience the most people he resorts to calling them terrorists.

What will he label real terrorism when it happens ? Will the public realise the significance or will they just assume he is “crying wolf” again ?

That definition does not describe this action. There is no violence or threat of violence (1), there is no fear (2) – merely inconvenience – and a definition of a word that includes the word itself is pointless (3).

The 3rd definition is flawed. To understand the 3rd definition I would have to look up the word “terroristic” which, in the same source that you cited, states that you have to be Russian or French to be “terroristic” or it references the term “terrorism” again.

Circular referencing:

  1. Terrorism is an act done in a terroristic way.
  2. A terroristic person is one who uses terrorism.

Not much use.

Anonymous July 10, 2008 12:34 AM

@ Russell Coker,

You mentioned Noam Chomsky and his take on terrorisum.

I sometimes wonder if he has changed his stated view of,

“In many respects, the United States is the freest country in the world. I don’t just mean in terms of limits on state coercion, though that’s true too, but also in terms of individual relations.”

Due to the behaviour of the current political incumberants and their treatment of the ordinary US citizen.

Also his “five filters” of press reporting more than adiquatly explains why a number of people are now refering to the “ordinary citizen” in (supposed) democratic countries as “sheeple”…

Also his take on Israel is more than somewhat interesting (Noam is of jewish decent) and I suspect does not endear him to many in the supposed “Jewish lobby”.

Mind you I might well be biased as I have found that apart from minor issues I have found myself in broad aggrement with his views on many occasions.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2008 12:52 AM

Opps, the above “Anonymous” post was mine.

I realy should stop posting before breakfast, insomnia is not the best help on remembering minor details like my name 8)

JPT July 10, 2008 3:35 AM

Definition of terrorism has been one of the things the politicians around the world have failed.

In my opinion, mainly because agreeing in a global definition would sometimes impair their capacity to act on the borderline.

Well, back to the definition problem, Rick Lawhorn has a nice article here:

Also you can find a nice paper by Golder, B. e Williams, G. from the University of New South Wales entitled “What is ‘Terrorism’? Problems of legal definition” here:

Jason July 10, 2008 9:37 AM

Is there an accepted definition of ‘terrorism’? It seems like it is a very malleable term that is changed to suit the conditions.

It seems like an act is called terrorism if carried out by a non-state entity, but if the very same act was carried out by a nation state, then it is not terrorism. That doesn’t seem right to me.

Kanly July 11, 2008 9:27 AM

Hmmm… Funny you should pick up on this Bruce, because a lot of people are thinking the same thing. Governments have redefined terrorism so it now includes merely disagreeing with them. Here was the lead letter in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning I though summed it up nicely. I’m sure the poster would have no probs with me quoting them here:


“Tyranny, not democracy, punishes polite disagreement with power”
July 11, 2008

Democracy is not only a method for choosing governments. It is, or should be, a way to handle disagreement. In NSW our government is democratically chosen. But increasingly disagreement is resolved by administrative power.

Consider some of the recent stories in state politics: the controversy over the authority given to police and other agencies to remove or fine anyone said to be annoying or inconveniencing World Youth Day participants; Morris Iemma’s description of unionists as “industrial terrorists” for threatening a strike to coincide with the Pope’s visit; a public servant allegedly bullied by his minister into not complying with a freedom-of-information request; the alleged assault of a lawyer who offered assistance to someone being searched by police in a pub; and the alleged threats made by the Premier to a backbencher over funding for projects in her electorate. Add the debates on centralisation of planning powers and the policing of APEC, and a disturbing picture emerges.

These events share a common logic – the Government is actively narrowing the scope for political disagreement. In each case, an act of disagreement is treated as a threat to order that must be punished, rather than as a legitimate political act. The Government will tolerate some level of disagreement, but only on its terms.

Challenge the authority of a minister or a police officer in a manner which they do not approve and you are considered to be disloyal, anti-social, criminal or even terrorist.

This is a pernicious logic. It forecloses the space for disagreement because it fails to acknowledge that democratic politics can take a number of forms – from parliamentary polls to individual and collective acts of expression and protest.

Any democratic society will legitimately want to limit the forms that disagreement can take. But these limits should be justified with reference to democratic debate and principles.

None of the forms of disagreement under attack by this Government is a threat to democracy. In each case, individuals and groups want to engage in debate, not impose their will by force. They are protesters who seek to engage with institutions such as the church and state through banners and T-shirts, and peaceful assembly; workers voting to withdraw their labour in the way that maximises public impact; citizens offering nothing more than information and legal assistance.

Yes, they will cause inconvenience and annoyance to some. But in a democracy, our justification for restricting these forms of disagreement ought to evoke higher principles than annoyance and inconvenience. Such language in laws regulating World Youth Day protests is troubling enough. Of more cause for concern is that these dubious concepts seem to reflect an approach to disagreement generally.

Some forms of inconvenience and annoyance are fundamental to democratic politics.

Kurt Iveson, Erskineville

John David Galt July 11, 2008 11:33 AM

I agree that the word “terrorism” should not be debased (though I use it more broadly than you: terrorism is any attack on persons or property, done in a way intended to scare other potential victims into following the terrorist’s orders).

The word “piracy” also should not be debased. Copyright infringement is not comparable to the crime of hijacking a boat or airplane.

JPT July 11, 2008 12:02 PM


Is there an accepted definition of ‘terrorism’?

No there isn’t one. There are several, more than one hundred, according to a study the US Army conducted in ’98.

It seems like an act is called terrorism if carried out by a non-state entity, but if the very same act was carried out by a nation state, then it is not terrorism. That doesn’t seem right to me.

It also depends on who’s “calling”. There are several cases of state sponsored terrorism. Some nations call all that business about US involvement in Nicaragua some years ago state terrorism. Another example of the same is what is happening in Tibet now.

Fidel Castro is another example terrorist for some, revolutionary for others.

The main problem here is, as noted, the conspicuous absence of a definition for terrorism. two things that seem to be in common in all definitions are:
(1) the acts are politically motivated
(2) the deliberate targetting of civilians

Drumhead July 11, 2008 3:17 PM

Terrorism, like pedophilia, is simply a buzzword for a source of moral panic wearing away at civil liberties in the First World.

Redfox July 14, 2008 5:20 AM

Hm, that reminds me of something Orwell once said about “Fascism”:

“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”


JakeL July 16, 2008 3:48 AM

In the newsletter, Schneier describes Israel’s classification of a recent Palestinean terrorist attack (the only example he brings which actually resulted in deaths and not minor incoveniences) as “random stupidity”.

Bruce makes 2 major mistakes here: 1) he relies on a report from CNN, which is infamous for it’s inability to call a spade a spade when it comes to Islamo-fascist terrorism. 2) he sees this perpetrator as a “random homicidal nut”. Fact is that he was screaming “Allahu Akhbar!” (precisely translated as ‘ Allah is greater than your god’) throughout the nearly half-mile path of his attack, just like so many Palestinian terrorists before him.

When people can’t connect the dots and recognize obvious patterns, one wonders if they are stupid, biased or just plain blind. I am a long-time reader of Schneier’s insights but am starting to agree with some other professionals that he misses the point too often.

Oh, when it comes to antiterrorist security consulting, remind me not to rely on people who refuse to see obvious threats, even when they are deadly and repetitive.

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