Terrorism refers to the illegitimate use of violence or intimidation to advance a group's interests. Examples include detonating explosives in public places, taking hostages, or assassinating politicians. Central to the concept of terrorism is that its objective is primarily ideological. Terrorists typically do not employ violence to gain wealth but rather to bring attention to political causes.

Because the term terrorism hinges on a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of violence, controversy often accompanies its use. For example, governments routinely use force to advance their interests, but do not characterize their actions as instances of terrorism. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City is readily identified as a terrorist act because it was undertaken by a very small group of individuals and not an entire government. Yet much more violent attacks directed against large cities during World War II are not characterized as acts of terrorism. Within a single conflict use of the term "terrorist" in news reports can reveal the political sympathies of the broadcaster or the government that released information about the attack. For example, in the American press violent events undertaken by Palestinians are far more likely to be characterized as acts of terrorism than equally or more violent actions taken by the Israeli military. This political component became very clear in the United States during the Reagan administration, which aided the Contra rebels who were waging a campaign of violence against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Officials in the American government characterized the Contras as "freedom fighters" while supporters of the Sandinistas portrayed them as terrorists.

The use of violence by small groups to advance their interests is not a twenty-first-century development. The term terrorism first appeared during the French Revolution and the Jacobin Reign of Terror. Similarly, many other words associated with terrorism (i.e., thug, assassin, and zealot ) derive from groups alleged to have used violence and death to advance their political objectives.

Historically terrorism is thought to have passed through several distinct stages, from its origin among religious groups fighting to defend or advance their organization's beliefs, to secular groups, whose objectives were clearly political. Traced by some historians to the French Revolution, this process of the secularization of terrorism continued throughout the twentieth century. Modern technology's ability to expand the audience for violent actions is thought by some analysts to have fueled terrorism's appeal, making nations with a free press particularly susceptible to the quest for media coverage. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century accounts of terrorism argue that it may have moved into a new period, as new technology allows small groups of individuals the ability to wield tremendous destructive power, and permits even faster coverage of that destruction to a wide audience, as evidenced by the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Experts warn that such attacks are not limited to religiously motivated groups but can also include assaults stemming from personal grudges or psychopathological conditions.

In contrast to individual acts of violence, the use of terrorism by small political organizations is thought to serve several functions: (1) It makes the group committing the terrorist act appear large and powerful, thus intimidating outsiders and boosting morale of the terrorist group's members; (2) it reveals the vulnerability of the target, whose apparent strength is thereby placed in doubt and whose authority may become undermined; (3) it can eliminate opposition; (4) it may start a chain reaction of assaults undertaken by sympathetic political groups; and (5) it cements the terrorists to the organization because individuals who commit acts of terror cannot leave the organization very easily.

The impact of media coverage of terrorist acts is mixed. On the one hand, most Americans greatly overestimate the threat of terrorism, probably due to media coverage of the subject. In fact, the chances of being killed in an automobile accident are more than one hundred times higher than the chance of being killed by a terrorist action while overseas. On the other hand, sustained terrorist attacks can produce a backlash against the perpetrator's cause, as occurred in 1999 when bombings of Moscow apartment buildings increased the hostility of Russian citizens toward Chechens, who were thought to be responsible for the blasts.

Attempts to combat terrorism include use of metal detectors and dogs at locales thought to be likely targets for attack. While these methods are effective at reducing the frequency of terrorist acts, it appears impossible to protect targets completely against determined terrorists. Ironically, methods to offset terrorism exaggerate the public's perception of threat and thus advance one of terrorism's main objectives.

See also: Death Squads ; Terrorist Attacks on America


Crenshaw, Martha. "The Logic of Terrorism." In Walter Reich ed., Origins of Terrorism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Fleming, Dan B., and Arnold Schuetz. "Terrorism, Assassination, and Political Torture." In Daniel Leviton ed., Horrendous Death, Health, and Well-Being. New York: Hemisphere Publishing, 1991.

Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Laqueur, Walter. Terrorism. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

Shurkin, Joel. "Modern Terrorists Are 'Anemic.'" Stanford Observer, 6 February 1988, 1ff.

Stern, Jessica. The Ultimate Terrorists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Stohl, Michael. The Politics of Terrorism. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1983.


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