End of Chapter Question Pointers
Chapter 4 – Conceptualizations of Terrorism
- Is there any point in striving for a universally agreed conceptualization of terrorism?
- What have been the main difficulties in achieving this?
- To what extent does the failure to craft a universally agreed conceptualization of terrorism hinder counter-terrorism responses?
- Is terrorism really a distinctive form of political violence?
- How would you conceptualize terrorism?
There are some who question whether much effort should be expended on trying to achieve a universally agreed conceptualization of terrorism, such as Walter Laqueur who wrote that, although ‘terrorism is an unmistakeable phenomenon... the search for a scientific, all-comprehensive definition is a futile enterprise,” (No End to War, Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century [New York: Continuum International, 2004], p. 238). When thinking about this question, then, consideration must be given to the likelihood of achieving such agreement due to the way that ‘terrorism’ has been and can be subjectively applied. Consideration should also be given to the benefits, if any, that such agreement might bring.
When addressing this think about three major difficulties in particular. The first is that terrorism is a socially constructed concept and so there can be no concrete ‘truth’ as to what it means. The second challenge is that the term ‘terrorism’ has often been subjectively applied (often as a derogatory label) rather being used as the outcome of dispassionate analysis. Try to think of examples where this may have been the case. The third challenge is to determine what components should be included in any conceptualization of terrorism.
For this question consider how the failure to agree a conceptualization might impact on counter-terrorism responses. For example, if international cooperation is seen as imperative in countering terrorism then surely there needs to be agreement as to what it is that is being tackled? Consideration should also be given, however, to the prospects for effective counter-terrorism even without an agreed definition (try to include examples of this), and also to the potential for regional or local agreement on conceptualising terrorism (if not universal) that might facilitate bilateral or regional cooperation against terrorism.
Some comparison here needs to be made between terrorism and other concepts that fall within the parameters of political violence. For example, what distinguishes terrorism from war, guerrilla warfare, insurgency, political assassination, and so on? Arguably most terrorism studies scholars (though certainly not all) see terrorism as a distinctive form of political violence so some thought needs to be given as to why this is the case and how a conceptualization of terrorism might reflect this. Conversely, through engaging with some Critical Terrorism Studies perspectives, you may want to make the case that, actually, terrorism isn’t necessarily a distinctive form of political violence.
There is no right or wrong answer when generating a conceptualization of terrorism. The key challenge is to determine what components you think should be included. Once you have established these, acts of violence (or the threat of violence) should be measured against the criteria that you have proposed in order to determine whether or not you think they can be classified as terrorism. The aim should be to generate a conceptualization of terrorism that is sustainable with a shelf life, rather than changing it to meet the exigencies of the day or the latest terrorist event.