Why Terrorism is a Contested Concept

Over the years, the concept of terrorism has remained a relatively controversial one. Different quarters have viewed terrorism from a different point of view. It is this difference in the point of views that have made the definition of the concept not only hard, but also contested.

The views of the entire concept of terrorism are equally contested with one wing viewing terrorism as an act of cowardice while the other arm views terrorism as an act of coercion directed to the government without necessarily engaging in a high profile war. The two standpoints indicate that the people who are labeled as terrorist direct their aggression towards the government or towards high profile entities that are meant to capture the attention of the government.

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The development of a universally acceptable definition of terrorism can be an effective way for ensuring that the crime is addressed from a common front by the necessary stakeholders. Nevertheless, there are several definitions that have been brought fourth. First, terrorist are viewed as cowards who attack the most vulnerable persons to advance their political or social cause by getting the attentions of the government.

Terrorism has also been defined as acts committed with the sole purpose of provoking a state of terror. On the other hand, terrorists view themselves as crusaders of the rights of the oppressed and they seek to target their attacks to the citizens of their oppressors to coerce them (the oppressors) to end the oppression, whether perceived or real.

Despite several high profile cases that have been labeled as terrorist attacks, the international community remains reluctant concerning coming up with a definition that would be universally acceptable to define the term terrorism.

As noted by Kegley, (2003) the reason the international community is yet to come up with a functional and universally accepted definition of the concept of terrorism is that terrorism represents a highly politically and emotionally charged concept. Due to the lack of a legally binding internationally acceptable definition of what is terrorism, various definitions that have been adopted have remained to be sectorial in nature.

Another reason why the definition of the term terrorism remains a hard concept is the changing nature of targets by the terrorists. Crimes that have been qualified as terrorists have kept on changing their nature especially due to the beefing up of security in the areas that had previously been attacked.

Most of the sectorial definitions that have been adopted cannot define the terrorism acts that may target some aspects such as air traffic control among other facets. The wide nature of possible soft targets to be adopted by terrorist groups have continued to be a major hindrance to the quest of coming up with an official definition of the term terrorism.

According to Kegley, (2003), terrorism is viewed as an act of cowardice that is perpetrated by a group of radical persons that lack the willpower to address their nemesis head on. As a result, terrorist often attack the most helpless people in order to coerce states to yield to their demands. This view has been rejected by Seib and Janbek, (2010), who fail to see how terrorism can be said to be an act of cowardice.

In their view, Seib and Janbek, (2010), assert that most groups that have been labeled as terrorist groups comprise with few radical individuals who have the courage and audacity to take on government policies and coerce various states to yield to certain demands. The fact that this radical groups manage to take on established states through their actions that sometimes require wit as well as self-determinism shows that terrorists cannot be labeled cowards.

Critically speaking, although terrorists are known to attack the soft spots as well as the most vulnerable entities, a close analysis of their activity can justify Seib and Janbek’s assertions that terrorism in not an act of cowardice. For instance, when one examines a group such as the now defunct Weather Underground Movement that became to be known as an internal group of terrorist, one can see the audacity of the members, hence showing that terrorism is not an act of cowardice after all.

This defunct group took on the government of the United States of America for its policies on the war on Vietnam. Although it was a small group compared to the mighty United States defense force, the group had its views aired by bombing the pentagon and other government buildings.

Another example that can be used to show the controversies that surrounds the definition of the concept of terrorism as an act of cowardice or bravely can be examined from the analysis of the September 11 attack that perhaps remains the worst act of terrorism against the interests of the United States.

The terrorists responsible in these attacks (al-Qaida formerly under the slain terrorism leader Osama bin Laden) managed to utilize several loopholes in the United States security measures to carry simultaneous attacks on areas of prime importance in the country.

Although it is true that terrorist targets the vulnerable persons in their attacks, one can argue that they are not necessarily cowards as they seek to air their views in a radical manner, which make them to cause much panic to the citizens thus drawing the quick attention of the government.

In conclusion, it is evident that there are various factors that surround the concept of terrorism that makes it hard to come up with a universally acceptable as well as a legally binding definition of terrorism as a crime. From the changing nature of the crime, the political emotions attached to the concept, to the controversy surrounding the bravery or cowardice nature of the acts of terror, it is hard to say what terrorism is exactly. The enumerated difficulties have made it hard to define what terrorism is.


Kegley, C., W. (2003). The new global terrorism: characteristics, causes, controls. New York: Prentice Hall.

Seib, P., M. & Janbek, D., M. (2010). Global terrorism and new media: the post-Al Qaeda generation. New York: Taylor & Francis.


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