by Stephanie Downing
April 2018

Terrorism is arguably the most sensationalized issue in the American newstream. From the Oklahoma City Bombing to the attacks on 9/11, terrorism dominates the mainstream media on both a national and international scale. As a result, our society has periodically attached certain terms, such as terrorist, radicalized, or jihadi, to demographic groups that are often featured in relation to terrorism–predominantly, Islamic-extremists (Calavita, 2010, p. 35). However, do the legal definitions of these terms align with this stereotype?

The critical race theory by Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado (2001) provides insight on why certain religious or ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be aligned with terrorism over other demographic groups. Because these terms are used so casually in our everyday vocabulary and the media, their legal connotations have been lost over time. A society that fails to acquire an accurate definition of terrorism is more threatening to their own security than these groups are.

The media strategically broadcasts terrorism in a manner that fuels the public’s misunderstandings about the issue. Islamic-extremism is grossly overrepresented as the most threatening terrorist ideology, when there are thousands of transnational organizations that are just as deadly to global security. A content analysis of American newspaper articles on terrorist attacks from 2003-2004 found that words that implied  “destruction and devious intent” were used to describe the violence in Iraq, whereas “patriotism” and “allegiance” described the violence executed by the U.S. military against its enemies (Dunn et al., 2005, p. 67). In addition, violence perpetrated by U.S. forces was justified as “strategic” or “clandestine,” but not so when the same action is committed by a Middle Eastern nation. Therefore, the actors of violence evidently determine whether the attack is portrayed as terrorist attack or strategic operation by the media.  

The public’s misunderstandings of terrorism have also caused grave implications in national and global security policy. Terrorism is defined quite differently amongst many government agencies in the United States. The Department of Defense (DoD), for instance, defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intend to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological” (Hoffman, 2017, p. 31). The term unlawful violence is essentially an oxymoron–is it truly possible for any act of violence to be lawful? This term could potentially justify the U.S. military’s decision to execute an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, which completely annihilated the cities in a manner that the world never saw before. One could argue that these attacks comply with the DoD’s definition of terrorism, as they pursued a political goal through violence to ultimately end the war. However, the DoD would likely counter and defend their actions as a strategic operation.

On the other hand, the State Department claims that terrorism is fueled by a political or subnational motive against non-combatants (Hoffman, year, p. 31). This definition is noteworthy because it considers attacks that target civilians as terrorist-inspired. Therefore, this definition would not consider the 2012 Benghazi attack as terror attack even though it was both politically and ideologically motivated (Dunn et al., 2005, p. 68).

At a United Nations Assembly in 1974, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization attempted to counter both the DoD’s and State Department’s definitions of terrorism by claiming, “whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers, and the colonialists, cannot possibly be called ‘terrorist’” (Dunn et al., 2005, p. 68, as cited by Hoffman, 1998, p. 26).

Today, the public’s definitions of terrorism are rooted in discriminatory stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims. However, there are many sociological consequences when the legal definition of terrorism is obscured by the media and government agencies. Attaching the terrorist label immediately after a Muslim or Arab individual commits a crime unjustly profiles a demographic that is exceptionally large and diverse. Researchers have found that public perceptions are directly “shaped by subtle cues that draw on past experience [to periodically] alter one’s subsequent judgements, evaluations, and actions” (Dunn, Moore, & Nosek, 2005, p. 67). When an entire group is marginalized in society, they become consistent targets of prejudice and remain isolated from their community.

Defining terrorism accurately is critical for our society to recognize factors that define a terrorist attack over some other type of crime. Today, simply wearing a hijab or “looking Muslim” is often sufficient to identify someone as a terror suspect (Breen-Smyth, 2013, p. 232). When terrorism is loosely defined, the public will not be able to separate religion and ethnicity from from the action committed. Differences in reporting terrorism in the media based on the nationality of the perpetrator only adds to the growing societal issues that develop from these misconceptions, and over time, endangers global security.

Works Cited

Breen-Smyth, M. (2014). Theorizing the “suspect

community”: counterterrorism, security practices and the public imagination. Critical Studies on Terrorism 7:2, 223-240, doi: 10.1080/17539153.2013.867714

Calavita, K. (2010). Law in the Everyday, Everywhere.

Invitation to Law and Society: An Introduction to the Study of Real Law.

Combs, C. C. (2010). Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century (6th

ed.). New York: Routledge.

Dunn, E. W., Moore, M., & Nosek, B. A. (2005). The War

of the Words: How Linguistic Differences in Reporting Shape Perceptions of Terrorism. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy,5(1), 67-86. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2005.00056.x

Hoffman, B. (2017). Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia

University Press.


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