What is terrorism - Analyses of Social Issues and Public...

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The Definition of Terrorism Charles L. Ruby* Private Practice This article addresses the definition of terrorism. It is intended to provide a foun- dation from which to understand the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although terrorism appears to be much less dangerous than other forms of violence, it seems to command more attention. In order to respond to terrorism, a clear definition is necessary. Terrorism is defined by Title 22 of the U.S. Code as politically motivated violence perpetrated in a clandestine manner against noncombatants. Experts on terrorism also include another aspect in the definition: the act is committed in order to create a fearful state of mind in an audi- ence different from the victims. Whether or not an act is considered terrorism also depends on whether a legal, moral, or behavioral perspective is used to interpret the act. If a legal or moral perspective is used, the values of the interpreter are the focus rather than the act itself. A behavioral perspective appears to be best suited for interpreting and reacting to terrorism. The U.S. Department of State (2000) reported that international terrorists killed 405 people across the globe in 2000 (19 of these were U.S. citizens). As of the writing of this article, the most devastating single terrorist attack in U.S. history occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed and the Pentagon was severely damaged by hijacked commercial airliners. In this debacle, approximately 6,000 people were killed. Even with this huge loss of life, though, terrorist deaths over the years have typically paled in comparison to other forms of more common fatal inci- dents. For example, nearly 42,000 people were killed in car accidents in the United States in 2000 (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2001) and over 15,500 people were murdered in the United States in 1999 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000). Yet despite the fact that there are more traffic deaths or murders in the United Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 2002, pp. 9–14 © 2002 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues *Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Charles L. Ruby, The Pinnacle Center for Mental Health and Human Relations, 603 Post Office Rd., Ste 210, Waldorf, MD 20603 [e-mail: [email protected] ].
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States in a few months than there are terrorist deaths worldwide for an entire year, the terrorist phenomenon firmly holds our attention. Why is this? Part of the answer has to do with the psychological aspects of terrorism. One only has to witness the aftermath of the above-mentioned attacks on New York City and Washington to understand the sheer terror and grief that results from sen- sational terrorist attacks. For many, terrorism seems to be a random and senseless form of violence perpetrated by very disturbed people. The idea that one is suscep- tible to such seemingly uncontrollable and bizarre attacks certainly leads to a heightened sense of anxiety. Another important psychological aspect of terrorism is the terrorist’s ideological or political motivation, making terrorism akin to war.
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