TRIALS BY FIRE - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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TRIALS BY FIRE - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Defining Terrorism inUS Law and PolicyThe United States Government is obliged to protect its citizens and interestsfrom ‘terrorist’ threats. The term terrorism, however, is frequently misused bythe media, academics, politicians, policymakers and the public at large. Inorder to understand the US government’s multi-billion dollar anti-terrorismapparatus, as well as its legal and policy stances toward this subject, developinga clear understanding of what terrorism is—and what terrorism is not—iscritical. This chapter will examine how the terms terrorism and counterterrorismare used (and misused) by the US government in the effort to combat thisthreat. It will also delineate the moral dilemmas that terrorism poses for thestate—and for the terrorists themselves.The Difficulty With Defining TerrorismThere is no standard definition for terrorism, and therefore efforts to describeit in precise terms often get stuck in a “semantic swamp.” 28 Originally a positiveterm to describe those who supported Robespierre and the Terror in Francein the mid-1790s, 29 terrorism today has almost exclusively negative connotations.In its maximalist form, terrorism “always involves violence or the threatof violence.” 30 National security expert Bruce Hoffman offers a slightly narrowerdefinition of terrorism, piquantly noting, “virtually any especially abhorrentact of violence that is perceived as directed against society…is oftenlabeled ‘terrorism.’” 31In the post-WWII era, the term terrorism has been most commonly used torefer to violent political actions directed at civilians by non-state actors. Assuch, states battling an insurgency or rebellion frequently exploit the term ‘ter-Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | Harvard Kennedy School23

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