No. 466 November 2001
The Debut of Transcendent Terrorism
As the smoke clears in New York and Kabul, one blind spot still blocks the Western lens in the war against terror. There remains no official definition of “terrorism.” The need for such a definition was affirmed by representatives of over 150 countries at a UN conference held in October 2001 on “What is Terrorism?” They came armed with prior resolutions that ban terrorism in any context, no matter its grievance or goal. But the delegates argued that in order to isolate and criminalize the act itself, they would need to identify it. Otherwise, future thugs who massacre innocent civilians could argue that their case is somehow different, or somehow justified by context. They could claim: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Yet the member states could not agree on a definition. Officials like U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher argued that there was no need for one: U.S. law (and arguably UN resolutions) already boasts formulations of terrorism. Like their English and Canadian counterparts, however, these standard interpretations can be shown to be inadequate for capturing the most dangerous new breed of terror.
They stem from the traditional Western doctrine. For decades, the West has been gripped by an orthodoxy that holds that all terrorists act for political purposes. Violence occurs to advance some cause or redress some political grievance. Hence, all definitions of terrorism in American and English law include clauses like “to achieve a political end.” In other words, terrorists are just like everyone else, with political ambitions and strategic designs, except that they will resort to terrible deeds to achieve their goals.
This view has consequences: it means that terrorists could be thwarted either by appeasing their grievances or by frustrating their political strategies. But recent events have exposed a phenomenon that has long eluded Westernminds: the transcendent terrorist. Like their political counterparts, these killers seek to cut off as much innocent life as possible, maiming where they fail to kill, hurting where they fail to maim, and spreading anguish and suffering with abandon. Unlike other terrorists, however, their murders are not directly calculated to achieve their political aspirations (though they may have many of them). Rather, they act for religious or symbolic ends, or in the name of an ideology that transcends the immediate, earthly consequences. Their terror fulfills a value in its own right, like striking at an enemy deemed inherently unholy: transcendent terror.
These are clearly the most dangerous of terrorists. Changes in policy or deterrence are useless against such murderers, because they often are driven by something beyond practical outcomes and are not afraid to die. Yet they are also the ones who lie outside the scope of nearly all existing statutes, definitions, and accounts of terror. What follows is an attempt to expose and correct this misconception, which plagues both the definition and the understanding of terrorism in the West, and particularly in the U.S. These views need to be updated if they are to capture the reality of the transcendent terrorist.
Current Definitions Fall Short
It is certainly possible to define terrorism in a manner that incorporates transcendent terror, as well. One could focus on the following feature: violence directed at civilians identified with a distinct community, be it religious, political, or ethnic. That, in fact, is what all terrorism has in common.
But a close look at statutes meant to prohibit this behavior reveals a lot of room for violators to slip through the cracks. For example, a UN resolution prohibits, inter alia: “Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”1
Where this definition falls short is its failure to include anyone who commits acts like the September 11 attack, but without such ambitions as intimidation or coercion. Yet the evidence suggests that at least some of the hijackers acted out of a feeling of divine imperative or opposition to the U.S. as “the enemy of Allah,” without regard to political achievements. Does that mean they are not terrorists?
The difficulty goes beyond mere semantics. Definitions that tie terrorism to particular aims serve to reinforce the notion that the act itself — the deliberate murder of innocent civilians just for being American, for example — could actually be justified if different, perhaps worthy, goals were at play. Possible exceptions include a mass murderer who acts out of revenge, or to call attention to a legitimate plight. Those who bomb abortion clinics are often called “terrorists,” but this definition would exclude them, too: they do not seek to pressure a government or necessarily to intimidate a nation. They may seek simply to strike at the “evil” doctors.
Many countries seem plagued by this inability to define terrorism beyond specific political objectives. India, for example, defines it as follows: “acts done by using weapons and explosive substances or other methods in a manner as to cause or likely to cause death or injuries to any person or persons or loss or damage to property or disruption of essential supplies and services with intent to threaten the unity and integrity of [the state] or to strike terror in any section of the people.”2
Western countries are especially prone to such limited definitions. England and Canada both have introduced a view on the meaning of “terrorism” in their own legislatures, and they focus only on terrorism with a “purpose” or an “objective,” usually political.3
The Limited American View
The U.S. seems the most attached to the limited view of terrorism. The U.S. Code, section 22, reads: “the term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”4 Here the term “noncombatants” is meant to denote military personnel not engaged in combat at the time of the incident, as in the case of the U.S. Marines killed in the bombing of their barracks in Lebanon in 1983.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has laid out in greater detail the crime of terrorism: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”5
Again, these definitions tie terrorism to political aims. The U.S. statute refers to “politically motivated” acts, while the FBI’s definition requires that the act be “in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Even the “Patriot Act,” inspired by the mass murder of September 11 and passed overwhelmingly by both Houses of the U.S. Congress on October 26, defines terrorism either by citing the U.S. Code, noted above, or with the following addition on “domestic terrorism”:
[Domestic terrorism] involve[s] acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; and (B) appear to be intended (or to have the effect) — (i) to intimidate or coerce a civ