Words have definitions, and that’s kind of important to clear thinking. When words become divorced from their definitions they become confusing, even dangerous, because they can then be used entirely for their emotional impact, which allows them to manipulate people. “Terrorism” is one of those words that is historically difficult to define.
Actually defining “terrorism” has been the great bugbear of governments. For years the U.N. has repeatedly failed to arrive at an internationally agreed upon definition… why? Because it is virtually impossible to find any definition of terrorism that does not exactly describe the actions of governments.
Title 22, Chapter 38 of the United States Code resolves this little conundrum by tacking three words to the end of their definition, “by subnational groups.” So you see, it’s not “terrorism” when the state does it. It’s only terrorism when it’s done by non-state agents. The full definition reads:
premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups.
So, Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization. Full stop. It’s obvious. But by this definition the Taliban were not a terrorist organization between 1996 and 2001 when they ruled the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They became a terrorist organization after Operation Enduring Freedom when they were demoted to a “subnational group.” On the other hand, by this definition Irgun was a terrorist organization until the establishment of Israel in 1948 when they were absorbed into the Israeli Defense Forces.
You can see why finding a consistent definition is problematic.
But there’s another method by which an analyst can derive the meaning of a term. We can observe and examine the common usage. Let’s take a look.
The Liberty Dollar was a privately minted silver medallion that was used by precious metal enthusiasts as a barter currency. In 2007, after 10 years of legitimate business, the headquarters and mint of the Liberty Dollar was raided by the FBI who seized over 16,000 pounds of precious metal, an estimated $7 million value. The monetary architect of the Liberty Dollar, Bernard Von NotHaus, was convicted on multiple counterfeiting related charges (interestingly nothing related to fraud), and conspiracy against the United States. US Attorney Anne Tompkins stated, “Attempts to undermine the legitimate currency of this country are simply a unique form of domestic terrorism.” The quote was repeated in the press release of the FBI’s Charlotte North Carolina office. Tompkins went on to say that NotHaus’s activities, “do not involve violence,” but that they “represent a clear and present danger to the economic stability of this country.” NotHaus did not force anyone to accept his coins. He did not lie to anyone about what he was selling.
In 2010 Wikileaks achieved international attention with its release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables allegedly leaked by Bradley Manning. Among other crimes, Wikileaks revealed that a Texas contractor was pimping little boys to Afghan cops. Many on the left and right, even in the State Department, were clamoring to have Wikileaks declared a terrorist organization. Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, argued that Wikileaks should be classified as a terrorist organization because, “by doing that, we will be able to seize their funds and go after anyone who provides them help or contributions,” even though Wikileaks has never engaged in violence. They have only done digitally what any mainstream media outlet would do with documents leaked by whistleblowers. Not to mention King was also once an enthusiastic supporter of the Irish Republic Army, considered one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations at the time.
Recently in Orlando activists from the international grassroots group Food Not Bombs were dubbed dangerous “food terrorists” by the city’s mayor, Buddy Dyer. You might think, with a label like that, that they were serving up anthrax or yellowcake, but no. They were just dishing out some good homemade vegetarian chili. The city of Orlando banned “group feedings” because the presence of homeless people was, “detrimental to the aesthetic atmosphere of parks.” In defiance of this ordinance Food Not Bombs has continued to hand out free food at Lake Eola park week after week resulting in the arrest of at least 22 civil disobedient activists including the group’s co-founder Keith McHenry. A volunteer from Food Not Bombs responded “we think that it’s terrorism to arrest people for trying to share food with poor and hungry people.” Silly activist… it’s not “terrorism” when the state does it.
So, we’ve got economic terrorism, information terrorism and food terrorism. What’s the common thread? We certainly can’t call these things violence. And other than serving them free food they aren’t targeting noncombatants. That leaves “politically motivated.” The definition of terrorism, based on its observed usage, is just “premeditated politically motivation by subnational groups.” In other words, “dissent.” Whether by competing with state services, exposing state malfeasance, or simply disobeying the state. If you try to take any politically motivated action, perhaps even attending a protest, and the state doesn’t like it, you might be a terrorist.