Meaningful Distinction:

Patrick S. Lasswell Look outward for something to accomplish, not inward for something to despise.
pslblog at gmail dot com
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Towards a Better Definition of Terrorism Part Two

Jason Van Steenwyk replied to my first pass with the following:

Terrorism is not "pious" by definition, nor is it fraudulent. Some terrorists are pretty up front about their nature and their demands. It's not a misrepresentation.

What's wrong with "the use of violence, or threat of violence, against noncombatants in order to achieve political or economic ends?"

He brings up several good points and has the integrity to put his own definition up for discussion. I like the blogsphere because you get to have civil dialogues with people who have intellectual integrity. (Unlike for instance…college?)

There are some criteria for the definition that I left unsaid before, mostly because I wanted to get the idea out there for discussion as I was on my way to the base in the morning. So now that somebody agreed to play the game, let me write down the rules.

The definition needs to be exhaustive, to cover the relevant cases.
The definition needs to be exclusive, to eliminate specious cases.
The definition needs to be succinct, to eliminate boredom.
The definition needs to be direct, to inspire the people fighting this disease.

While Jason's definition is exhaustive and succinct, it lacks exclusivity and it nowhere near his capacity for mean. The two identities I wanted to exclude most from this definition's coverage were ordinary criminals and media twits. While Al Capone was a very bad man who probably deserved to die slowly of the clap, he was not a terrorist. When the Capone mob took a mistaken, and thankfully inaccurate, shot at my grandfather in Chicago they apologized in envelope form without lingering obligation. This is not behavior that fits a useful definition of terrorist.

Another group that needs to be excluded from this definition is the media twits. While they often strive to achieve the moral vacuity of terrorists, the participants of the show "Jackass" need to be kicked out of the set…if for no other reason than to keep them from getting the attention they are addicted to. I am not certain that my definition does enough to set aside their antics, since they will probably adapt their behavior to obtain the title if they think it will get them air time. This problem is central to the issue of terrorism, and my definition also ignores the media elephant in the room. Without a pervasive media to be co-opted, there probably would not be any terrorism to define.

In defense of my own definition, the concept of pious fraud probably should be hyphenated to indicate inextricability: pious-fraud. Terrorists operate under the cover of a piety that their actions render fraudulent. Part of being unkind to the bombers and beheaders is not playing along with their pretensions. If we dignify their violence, we excuse it, and thereby encourage it. Now that we have handed over the government and delivered elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have the moral authority to call the actions of others pious-fraud without meaningful disagreement.

I'd like to thank Jason Van Steenwyk again for responding. This is a conversation that needs to take place, because the current nebulous definitions floating about are not serving the interests of our culture. We need to better define the unacceptable other to stay true to a better idea of ourselves.
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