Terrorism is committed to extort political change, on behalf of an identifiable organization or movement.


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Join the conversation! There are now 16 comments on “What is terrorism? pg 5 – Political Purpose
  1. sdsaf says

    Just to let you know; left and right on the keyboard are reversed, excepting the last page.
    Also my captcha was: MEIN NISSAN
    Which is the funniest damn thing.

  2. Antistone says

    “Politically-motivated” and “for a greater cause” sound kind of the same to me. Could you explain the difference more?

    • They are certainly very closely related, which is why they’re sharing space on this page. But they’re not the same. The difference is, the “political” element asks WHAT you hope to change, while the “cause” element asks WHO seeks that outcome.

      It’s political when, through your violence, you aren’t trying to force people to give you money or something like that. That’s just garden-variety extortion. It has to be that you’re trying to change the policies or actions of a government, or of a society. Stuff like “stop sending troops here” or “impose more limits on government powers” or “start following the tenets of my religion.”

      It’s for a greater cause when you’re committing the violence “for us” or “for them,” and not just “for me.” Terrorism connotes a group endeavor, not an isolated crime. If you’re blowing things up just because you alone want that political change, we don’t call it terrorism. You’re doing what terrorists do, but you’re not quite a terrorist. It rises to the level of terrorism when you’re blowing things up to achieve change desired by a larger group. Not just your own personal goals, but those of an actual, identifiable organization or movement. You can do so both as a direct participant in that group, or as an outside sympathizer trying to help them achieve their goal.

      That was an excellent question, Antistone, thank you. Now let me ask everyone a followup question that may fine-tune the concept even more:

      Was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, a terrorist?

      • There have certainly been other people arguing/wishing/hoping/debating for a return to a more primitive, agrarian society etc., but I would say it’s hard to call them a very organized group or even necessarily a cohesive movement of any significance.

        That said, reading that wikipedia page’s section on his motivations, it seems he wasn’t committing the bombings for himself, but for a wider cause of return to nature etc., ultimately (in his mind) for the good of the populace as a whole, not even any specific section of it, even if meanwhile he did also target/injure some of the people he wanted to “help”/”save”.

        I would say yes.

      • I think it’s really difficult to figure out whether the lone wolf types fit inside your definition because we can’t necessarily pin down their true motivations. Kaczynski had a political ideology, but he had also been traumatized by serving as a test subject in a humiliating psychological experiment at Harvard. I have a similar problem with Dylan Roof. I can’t decide whether he acted based on white supremacist ideology or if he was simply a psychotic young man who desired infamy. In groups the various members all have political ideology in common even if their personal motivations differ. Individuals are far more complex.

        I also don’t think it really matters whether a borderline case fits within the definition. The main benefit of defining terrorism is what gets excluded. Terrorism has a lot of emotional weight, so rhetorical opportunists often apply the terrorist label to whatever or whomever they don’t like. A strict definition prevents that. Your definition allows us, for example, to say that Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist group. Blocking traffic is aggravating and illegal, but it’s not violent. Being able to exclude the stuff that definitely isn’t terrorism makes it easier to talk rationally about the stuff that definitely is.

      • I don’t really like the idea that the actions of one person can be either terrorism or not-terrorism based purely on how a third party feels about their goals.

        Suppose John Doe bombs an airport and says “I want the government to stop regulating foozles, just like the Foozle Enthusiast Group advocates!” Terrorism? But wait! Then the Foozle Enthusiast Group says “actually, we support government regulation of foozles, and always have.”

        Does that bombing retroactively stop being terrorism? (Does it matter whether John Doe was mistaken about the Foozle Enthusiast Group’s position or intentionally misrepresented it?)

        What if the Foozle Admirer’s Group says “well, WE are against foozle regulation, even if our sister organization is not!” Does that make it terrorism again?

        My feeling is that it shouldn’t matter how the FEG or the FAG feel about foozle regulation. They didn’t set the bomb. It should only matter why John Doe did it.


        On a more practical note, with 7+ billion people on the planet, odds are pretty good that at least one other person agrees with your political philosophy in general terms. (In fact, just because the spokesperson for the Foozle Enthusiast Group claims that the group supports regulation doesn’t mean there aren’t some individual members who feel differently.) How many political goals can you list that have been approved by EXACTLY one person? It’s not clear to me that this distinction is going to exclude any real examples.

        • If you are blowing stuff up in support of a group that does not share your views, that makes you a confused person with a bomb, not a terrorist. Still dangerous, but not a terrorist. If some other group says that they share your views, that might make THEM terrorists, but you are still just a confused person with a bomb.

          • If you come back to the section on criminal law, I think we can refer to the mens rea of the subject here. Just like attempted murder is attempted murder even if it turns out the thing you thought was poison was actually kool aid, or the gun you pulled on them wasn’t loaded (unbeknownst to you), the important thing in being a terrorist is that you think you’re doing it for a cause. It doesn’t really matter if the foozle groups actually did or did not agree with it any more than the second example in the comic of the man shooting up the church wouldn’t cease to be terrorism if he were the only racist in America. Likewise, if your violent crime happened to match the agenda of some group, but you weren’t doing it for them, it’s not terrorism.

            All that matters is what you meant.

      • I think Nathan is suggesting that terrorism is a thing that groups do, or possibly that individuals do in support of a group. If there was an identifiable group that Kaczynski was supporting, I am not aware of it. So, nut with a bomb, not a terrorist.

  3. B.J. says

    I think the purpose of the violence was to START a movement. So yes.

    Compare it to the picture you used about “waking the sheeple.” That’s a pretty accurate description of the Unabomber’s attitude. He was bombing people to get out a reactionary-anarcho-primitivist message. “We need to start a revolution against technology and kill all the leftists.”

  4. LNyax says

    Does that mean John Brown (of Harper’s Ferry fame) was a terrorist? It seems he meets all the requirements: he used violence to try to bring about political change in the support of a cause: abolition.

    • I would say John Brown fails to be a terrorist on one point – his choice of target. Harper’s Ferry was a military armory – the previous killings were also “military targets”. Because he did not target women, children, civilian buildings or artwork… he is a classic revolutionary.

      • I agree: and this is also why I strenuously disagree with President Bill Clinton’s characterization of the attack on the USS Cole as terrorism.

        Terrorist group? Sure. Violent, illegal, wrong? Sure. But a military target, and therefore not terrorism.

  5. Emma says

    This also needs o discuss the difference between terrorism and war fighting.

    For example- “We will storm the palace and kil the czar in the name of communism!” = not terrorism because killiing the czar is an inherent goal of the revolution, not a random target

    “We will attack this street with car bombs in the name of communism!” is terrorism, because the street is not an actual part of the war, there is no inherent value in getting rid of the street

  6. Tim says

    “Make America white again” is needlessly provocative. Just because you don’t agree with Trump, or Republicans, or whoever, doesn’t make them racists or Nazis.

    • That example isn’t about Trump or Republicans or any other particular group. It’s meant to be an example of what does and doesn’t count as terrorism in a context readily understandable by my mostly American readership.

      The point is what specifically motivated the person is key to making the distinction. A guy shooting up a church because he’s racist isn’t a terrorist. A guy shooting up a church to achieve some political goal is.

      The fictional slogan “Make America White Again” is a riff on MAGA, sure, but not at all the same thing. It’s just an easily-remembered (because it’s a riff) example of a political goal.

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