I was reading your recent post on religious profiling in which you said, "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims." I totally agree, but it's something I've been thinking about lately. I saw someone else make the same claim just last week on another blog, and a liberal vehemently objected, claiming that the reason "most terrorists are Muslims" is that we don't use the word 'terrorist' for all the Catholic murderers in the South American cities with the highest murder rates in the world.The idea behind this objection, it seems, is that if we were consistent, we'd call Christian murderers (such as baptized Catholics in South America who work for drug cartels and perhaps occasionally visit a Catholic church) terrorists too, and once we did that, we would no longer end up with the result that most terrorists are Muslims. Furthermore, once we did that, we wouldn't think Islam had a problem with violence any more than Christianity does, so we shouldn't pick on Islam.I think this line of thought has multiple mistakes, but it does bring to the surface an interesting question. How do we define 'terrorist'?One obvious thing that distinguishes Islamic extremists, such as the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, is that they are motivated to murder in the name of their religion, whereas the South American drug cartel members do not murder in the name of Catholicism.
So, you might think that the definition of 'terrorist' has something to do with religious motivation. But, this sort of definition does not catch terrorists who are motivated by power or greed.You could go with a definition that sticks more closely to the word 'terrorist', defining it as someone who uses extremely violent acts to create fear and terror to accomplish political goals, but this sort of definition is pretty broad, and it isn't as obvious that "most terrorists are Muslims" when we define it that way, is it? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about this.
1. A terrorist aims at a political objective. This distinguishes terrorists from criminals. No good purpose is served by lumping John Gotti and 'Whitey' Bulger among terrorists. Criminals may 'terrorize' as when a loanshark microwaves a delinquent's cat, but criminals who terrorize are not terrorists. This is because their aim is personal, not political. It is not impersonal ideals that motivate them but base personal desires. And although terrorists commit crimes, they are best not classified as criminals for the same reason. Treating the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center as criminal matters showed a lack of understanding of the nature of terrorism.
2. A terrorist does not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. This distinguishes terrorists from the warriors of a legitimate state. All are fair game, which is not to say that in a particular situation a terrorist might not have a reason not to target some combatants or some noncombatants. This distinguishes a terrorist organization such as Hezbollah from the Israeli Defense Forces. As a matter of policy, the IDF does not target noncombatants, whereas as a matter of policy Hezbollah and other terrorist outfuts such as Hamas target anyone on the enemy side. The deliberate targeting of civilians also distinguishes terrorists from guerilla fighters.
3. A terrorist is not an agent of a legitimate state but of a nonstate or substate entity. A terrorist is neither a criminal (see #1 above) nor a warrior (see #2) ; a terrorist act is neither a criminal act nor an act of war; a terrorist organization is neither a criminal gang nor a state. Strictly speaking, only states make war.
Of course, a state (e.g. Iran) can arm and support and make use of a terrorist outfit (e.g. Hezbollah) in pursuit of a political objective (e.g., the destruction of Israel). But that does not elide the distinction between states and terrorist organizations. It is also clear that states sometimes 'terrorize'; but this is not a good reason to think of states as terrorist organizations, or some or all of their combatants as terrorists or of any of their acts as terrorist acts. The Allied firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945 was a deliberate targeting of combatants and noncombatants alike in clear violation of 'just war' doctrine. But whatever one's moral judgment of the Dresden attack or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of these acts count as terrorist for the simple reason that they were the acts of states, not terrorist organizations. Some will bristle at this, but if one wants to think clearly about terrorism one must not confuse it with other things.
But what about the 'Islamic State' or ISIS or ISIL or whatever you want to call it? The short answer: it is not a legitimate state. What makes a state legitimate? With this question we are deep in, and the going gets tough. At this point I invoke blogospheric privilege and my maxim, "Brevity is the soul of blog."
4. A terrorist is not a saboteur. Sabotage is one thing, terrorism another. Analytical clariy demands a distinction. Infecting computer networks with malware or attacking the power grid are acts of sabotage, but they are not strictly speaking acts of terrorism. An act is not terrorist unless it involves the killing or maiming of human beings or the threat thereof.
I am indebted to the discussion in Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want, Random House, 2006, Ch. 1