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On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 men associated with the radical, Islamic jihadist organization Al-Qaeda hijacked four American passenger jets. Two of the hijacked airplanes were flown into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; one was crashed into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States’ Department of Defense – and the other one, which was also heading for Washington D.C., was brought down in a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers attempted to take back the plane from the hijackers. Orchestrated by the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, these attacks claimed the lives of 2,996 people, including the 19 hijackers, and were responsible for more than 6,000 non-fatal injuries. Although bin Laden did not take direct responsibility for the 2001 attacks until late 2004, the United States Federal Government launched the internationally backed military campaign known as the “Global War on Terrorism,” which as of August 2014 is still in a work in progress. Although this horrendous attack was not the first of its kind, it is recognized as the deadliest attack on Western soil and the deadliest and costliest terrorist attack ever perpetrated ("Bin Laden Claims …”). Because of the awful tragedies that transpired on that September morning, the word “terrorism” found its way into the everyday vocabulary of the world, and even though some knew terror intimately, the rest of the world was finally paying attention.
Since the events of 9/11, there have been multiple terrorist attacks, shootings and bombings in North America, Europe and Asia, and while a majority of these recent were carried out by Islamic extremists, one must keep in mind that the term “terrorism” does not solely apply to jihadists. In fact, some analysts believe the term is extremely subjective, citing the fact that the late Nelson Mandela, a human rights hero, remained on the United States’ terrorism watch list until 2008. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) was labeled a terrorist organization by South Africa’s apartheid regime for fighting against the government’s system of racial segregation that lasted from 1948-1994. Even Margaret Thatcher, former U.K. Prime Minister, refused to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime, as well as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with Thatcher calling the ANC a “typical terrorist organization” in 1987. Nelson Mandela would later become the president of a post-apartheid South Africa, (Ashtari.) Some believe that the amount of emotion attached to the word prevents objectivity in international policy; for example, the London-based news service Reuters, whose policy is to avoid using the word altogether, in a statement said they maintained that, “We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity, and background,” (qtd. in Campbell). Others, however, believe that objectivity isn’t always a factor, like a columnist for the New York Times, William Safire, who said, “The most precise word to describe a person or group who murders even one innocent civilian to send a political message is a terrorist,” (qtd. in Campbell). Some scholars also suggest utilizing this precise language to describe attackers in terms of their criminal behaviors instead of their beliefs in order to prevent the association of the Muslim world with acts of terror (Campbell).
A universal definition of the word has yet to become widely accepted, as a single definition might not always be accurate and/or sufficient. A March 2005 presentation to the United Nations General Assembly, entitled “Freedom from Fear,” defined terrorism as any action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from any act,” (qtd. in UNTV). In contrast, the National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals has defined six specific categories of terrorism in 1975. They consider civil disorder and protests held by individuals and groups that turn violent to be a form of terrorism, stating that although most demonstrations are intended to be peaceful, some escalate into large riots, resulting in property damage and injured or killed civilians. Political terrorism is defined as when a political group uses intimidation to influence another, because it is usually innocent civilians who are targeted instead of those actually in power; which is markedly different from non political terrorism – which is when an act of terror is carried out by a group for any other purpose, most often for a religious intention, and other than the motive, the tactics are generally the same. Quasi terrorism is when one performs a violent act implementing methods similar to those of a terrorist, but without the motive. An example would be an armed bank robber who takes a hostage in an attempt to escape capture with committing an act of terrorism without it being the goal. Limited political terrorism is when a group or an individual commits a terrorist act in an attempt to make a statement. Their motivation is not to exactly overthrow those in power, but to protest governmental policy; and these actions are usually one-time-only plots. And lastly is state terrorism, which is defined as a gruesome act perpetrated by an existing authority to accomplish any particular goal (“Types of Terrorism”).
In order to better combat terrorism, analysts have begun to psychologically assess the motivation and the drive that comes along with committing an act of terrorism. Author Jessica Stern wrote a book on the subject of the motivation of religious extremists called Terror in the Name of God. Coming face-to-face with many faction leaders and insurgents, Stern learned that almost all of her interviewees believed they were doing God’s will and protecting their faith and their people from the lies of their enemies. Stern expresses that statements like these “often mask a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear – fear of a godless universe, of chaos, of loose rules, and of loneliness,” and that some are just probably “projecting fears and inadequacies on the Other” (qtd. in Rose). A long-held misconception was that terrorism was spawned by extreme poverty, as demonstrated by the general wealth of the nations that spawned the largest numbers of insurgents and extremists; but a 2004 article from the Harvard Gazette suggests that it is not poverty, but the amount of political freedom a people are given that is more closely related to the amount of violence. So does that mean that only those living in a state with an established democracy are less likely to produce terrorists? Not according to head researcher, Professor Alberto Abadie, who states that nations with a heavily controlled autocratic government are also less likely to produce and experience low levels of terrorism. In fact, nations transitioning from an autocratic government to a more democratic government are far more susceptible to terrorism, as the transition is often unstable for a period of time (Powell).
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