Constructions of Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Research and Policy

Constructions of Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Research and Policy

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Discussions about the meaning of terrorism are enduring in everyday language, government policy, news reporting, and international politics.  And disagreements about both the definition and the class of violent events that constitute terrorism contribute to the difficulty of formulating effective responses aimed at the prevention and management of the threat of terrorism and the development of counterterrorism policies.  Constructions of Terrorism collects works from the leading scholars on terrorism from an array of disciplines—including communication, political science, sociology, global studies, and public policy—to establish appropriate research frameworks for understanding how we construct our understanding of terrorism. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520294172
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Stohl is Professor of Communication, Political Science, and Global Studies and Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Richard Burchill is Director of Research and Engagement at TRENDS Research and Advisory, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Scott Howard Englund is Non-Resident Fellow at TRENDS Research and Advisory and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Read an Excerpt

Constructions of Terrorism

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Research and Policy

By Michael Stohl


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-29417-2


Can Terrorism Be Defined?

Lisa Stampnitzky

I've titled this chapter with the question "Can terrorism be defined?" But of course terrorism can be defined; the true problem is not a surfeit, but rather a surplus, of definitions. Yet neither experts, nor politicians, nor the lay public has been able to come to an agreement as to which of the many definitions circulating is correct, and the so-called problem of definition has been a central and enduring aspect of both public and expert debate on terrorism. In practice, this discussion most often takes the form of debate over how to differentiate "terrorism" from "not terrorism" and whether or not a particular act qualifies as such.

This chapter does not presume to resolve this dilemma. Rather, I suggest that the single-minded focus on defining terrorism has obscured a perhaps more interesting question: What does terrorism define? I argue in this chapter that if the problem of definition has not been resolved, it may be because struggles over its definition contain within them three questions even more central to contemporary politics:

1. Who is the enemy?

2. When is violence legitimate?

3. What is political?

Rather than presuming that we can resolve the problem of definition, I suggest that attempts to define terrorism, whether by the state or in the realm of public discourse, be understood as struggles over the answers to these questions. I begin this chapter with a brief overview of the emergence of the contemporary concept of terrorism, establishing that the problem of definition was a central feature of the discourse from the start. I then discuss each of the three questions above. I explicate what each of them means, why it is significant, and how its meaning can be read from the way terrorism is defined. I suggest that the answer to the question "What is terrorism?" then tells us (and depends on) the answer to these questions.

The concept of terrorism first began to take shape in its contemporary form in the early 1970s. Before that time, acts of political violence, including hijackings, assassinations, and other acts that we now consider terrorism, were instead most often understood through a discourse of insurgency. Within the framework of insurgency, violence was generally understood to be rational, purposeful, sometimes even justifiable. With the emergence of a discourse dominated by the concept of terrorism, however, in which acts labeled as such came to be understood as fundamentally immoral, "terrorism" came to be understood as rooted in a terrorist identity, rather than as a tactic that any group might adopt. With these changes, the search for explanations of both "terrorism" as an act, and the "terrorist" as a type of person, took off, leading to the emergence of the new field of terrorism studies. Since the discourse of terrorism has taken hold, with each new and subsequent incident, the key question has become "Is this an act of terrorism?" — with the answer guiding both the further questions to be asked and the answers needed to respond.

The problem of definition was thus present almost from the very start. Even terrorism experts have been unable to agree on how terrorism should be defined, and when I interviewed terrorism experts, they themselves often lamented this problem of definition. As Brian Jenkins, former head of terrorism research at the think tank RAND, told me in an interview, "Definitional debates are the great Bermuda Triangle of terrorism research. I've seen entire conferences go off into definitional debates, never to be heard from again." Indicating that this is not a recent phenomenon, we may observe that a 1988 survey of the literature found more than one hundred different definitions in use among terrorism researchers; an observer at a mid-1980s Department of Defense symposium reported that there were "almost as many definitions as there were speakers"; and a 2001 article described a "perverse situation where a great number of scholars are studying a phenomenon, the essence of which they have (by now) simply agreed to disagree upon." At the international level, attempts to develop an international counterterrorism response at the UN faltered throughout the 1970s, in large part because states were unable to agree on what constitutes terrorism (with countries from the Global South, in particular, arguing that the use of violence in national liberation struggles should be excluded).

I began by referencing the "problem of definition" in terrorism studies, characterized by a surplus of definitions and the lack of agreement on any one definition. In fact, the definitions circulating are often not just different but mutually contradictory. Competing definitions commonly suggest that states can or cannot commit terrorism, or that terrorism consists only, or not only, of violence against civilians. Examples of these contradictions are easy to find, not just in abstract debates over definition but also in applications of the label in practice. For example, many will criticize the United States for following a "double standard" — pointing to US support for "terrorists" (violent insurgents who target civilians) such as the Contras in Nicaragua, Renamo in southern Africa, and even Osama bin Laden and his "mujahedeen" fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, while condemning the violence of those it deems enemies. As the saying goes, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Given this essential contestation at the heart of defining terrorism, how have experts and others tried to resolve the problem of definition? Many (though by no means all) terrorism experts are highly disconcerted by this situation, and have sought (albeit with relatively little success) to "fix" or stabilize the definition of terrorism, sometimes suggesting that until this is accomplished, little progress can be made in the field, the "politicization" of the concept having commonly been pointed to as a key hindrance. For example, Martha Crenshaw writes, "The task of definition ... necessarily involves transforming 'terrorism' into a useful analytical term rather than a polemical tool." Similarly, Schmid and Jongman, in their omnibus reference work, Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literatures, suggest that there is a need for a neutral, stable, and universally accepted definition as a basis for scholarly progress:

The search for a universalist definition of terrorism is one which scientists cannot give up. Without some solution to the definitional problem, without isolating terrorism from other forms of (political) violence, there can be no uniform data collection and no responsible theory building. ... The search for an adequate definition of terrorism is still on ... many authors seem fatigued about the need to still consider basic conceptual questions. This is a dangerous attitude as it plays into the hands of those experts from the operational antiterrorist camp who have a "we-know-it-when-we-see-it" attitude that easily leads to double standards which produce bad science and also, arguably, bad policies.

What I refer to here as stabilization thus includes calls for the depoliticization of definitions of terrorism, for politically "neutral" definitions, and, often, for definitions that are agnostic with regard to moral judgment.

Furthermore, the problem of definition does not just trouble experts. Media coverage of terrorism, as well, has frequently been characterized by disputes over definition. Critiques of the conceptualization of terrorism in the media tend to highlight inconsistencies in the use of the term — particularly pointing out seeming double standards where the term is applied to one set of actors, but not another, engaging in similar acts. For example, Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, has repeatedly compared coverage of different incidents to argue that the misconceptualization and misapplication of the term terrorism is an ongoing problem. Referring to an incident in 2010 when a white American flew a small plane into an IRS building, he writes: "The attack had all of the elements of iconic terrorism, a model for how it's most commonly understood: down to flying a plane into the side of a building. But Stack was white and non-Muslim. As a result, not only was the word 'terrorism' not applied to Stack, but it was explicitly declared inapplicable by media outlets and government officials alike." We can find similar examples of this form of critique in commentary on media coverage of the massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. For example, as an article on stated:

As many have pointed out, the media is unsure about what constitutes terrorism only when white people are the perpetrators. White men with guns are "lone wolves" or "mentally ill" or depraved criminals. Brown men with bombs are very obviously "terrorists." This is a double standard with consequences. "Terrorism" is a word that resonates; it inspires urgency and collective action, both of which are needed if we're to deal with the underlying problems. If white people can't, by definition, be terrorists, then the term has no practical meaning; it's about the actor, not the act. If terrorism is something only brown people do, then we should be honest and admit that. We should say that terrorism is about the color of the criminal, not the intent of the crime.

Meanwhile, a piece in the Washington Post declared:

But listen to major media outlets, and you won't hear the word "terrorism" used in coverage of Wednesday's shooting. You haven't heard the white, male suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, described as "a possible terrorist" by mainstream news organizations (though some, including The Washington Post, have covered the growing debate about this discrepancy). And if coverage of other recent shootings by white men is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.

Each of these examples focuses upon forms of bias in the application of the "terrorism" label to events, illustrated by repeated inconsistencies in the use of the concept. In sum, there is significant contestation over the conceptualization of terrorism, both among experts and in the media. The debates tend to hinge on calls for stabilization of the concept, rooted in concerns either that it is inherently ambiguous or that it is applied inconsistently (i.e., there are double standards). For media critics, such stabilization would require making the concept fairer in its application, by removing bias — whether with regard to friend versus enemy, state versus nonstate, or race, religion, and ethnicity — and by applying definitions and moral judgments evenly to all perpetrators. Ultimately, many of these criticisms come down to making the point that the concept needs to be fixed, in two senses of the word: first, that it needs to be repaired, made more coherent, and applied in a more consistent way, and second, that it needs to be stabilized, prevented from being continually politicized or biased. These sorts of media critiques thus echo many of the calls for stabilization coming from the expert sphere.

If terrorism has not, and perhaps cannot, be pinned down to a fixed definition, how should we comprehend its continued centrality in political discourse? What I suggest is that rather than asking how terrorism should be defined, we instead ask, What is it that terrorism defines? I have argued that (debates over) definitions of terrorism tend to center on three central concerns: that it is illegitimate violence, perpetrated by enemies, with a political character. What the ongoing salience of the problem of definition suggests, however, is that none of these issues is self-evident, and, indeed, they indicate three of the most significant questions in contemporary political life. Who is the enemy? When is violence legitimate, and when is it illegitimate? (And relatedly, when is violence "out of place," and when is it expected, or even normal?) And which questions and concerns count as properly political? Where is the boundary between the "political" and the "nonpolitical"? What I argue here, then, is that struggles over the definition of terrorism are struggles over the correct (meaning culturally agreed upon or politically hegemonic) answers to these questions.

It is a commonplace in political science, most often attributed to Max Weber, that a key feature of the modern state is that it is the sole arbiter of legitimate violence. Terrorism, on the other hand, is most commonly understood as illegitimate violence. What my argument suggests, then, is that whatever is designated as terrorism is defined as illegitimate violence. Violence seen as legitimate, or as potentially justifiable, will face resistance in being labeled as terrorism. The most apt example here might be the question of "state terrorism" itself, and the struggle over whether or not this can even be a possibility. When critics attempt to apply the label to the state, they are likely to face pushback. Similarly, we may cite the attempts of movements such as Black Lives Matter to label police violence as terror, and the strong responses that these claims can engender.

But of course not all illegitimate violence is designated as terrorism. What I suggest here, first, is that the core logic of the identification of terrorism "in practice" is that it is identified as violence out of place. The question, then, of course, is what counts as "out of place"? As one commentator has declared, "The promise of the 'war on terror' was that we would kill them 'over there' so they would not kill us 'over here.'" Violence out of place is violence that moves beyond where it is "expected" to occur: in a site expected to be "peaceful" (i.e., Western or "civilized," not a war zone); in a place where those considered "representative" live (i.e., not the "inner city"); and further, when it is unexpected, on a site perceived as "innocent" and disconnected from explicit political causes or actions (thus attacks on an expressly "political" or "partisan" site are, ironically, less likely to be treated as terrorism than "random" or purely generic or civilian sites). The key thing here is what we might call the generalizability of those attacked: can they be seen as representative of the nation or our way of life, with all of the connotations of racial, class, and religious hierarchy and inequality that this entails? The less this is seen to be the case, the less likely an incident is to be treated as terrorism. This also explains why terrorism is commonly described by politicians as "attacks on our way of life" — because this is a conclusion derived from those sorts of incidents to which the label is most likely to be applied, namely, those that target sites or groups most likely to be seen as representative of "us" (America or "the West"), usually committed by outsiders or those perceived as "out of place." And furthermore, I suggest that this is what leads to the definition of such violence as "illegitimate": it is not simply that "illegitimate" violence itself is considered terrorism, but rather, the reverse, that those acts labeled terrorism are illegitimate because they are "out of place," not because of anything inherent in the acts.


Excerpted from Constructions of Terrorism by Michael Stohl. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Constructions of Terrorism Scott Englund Michael Stohl Richard Burchill 1

1 Can Terrorism Be Defined? Lisa Stampnitzky 11

2 Misoverestimating Terrorism John Mueller Mark G. Stewart 21

3 Terrorism as Tactic David H. Schanzer 38

4 The Construction of State Terrorism Ruth Blakeley 53

5 Killing Before an Audience: Terrorism as Performance Violence Mark Juergensmeyer 67

6 Constructing Terrorism: From Fear and Coercion to Anger and Jujitsu Politics Clark McCauley 79

7 Framing Terrorism: The Communicative Constitution of the Terrorist Actor Benjamin K. Smith Scott Englund Andrea Figueroa-Caballero Elena Salcido Michael Stohl 91

8 Some Thoughts on Constructions of Terrorism and the Framing of the Terrorist Threat in the United Kingdom Anthony Richards 108

9 Contradictions in the Terrorist Discourse and Constraints on the Political Imagination of Violence Richard Falk 125

10 Legal Constructions of Terrorism Richard Burchill 138

11 Do Different Definitions of Terrorism Alter its Causal Story? Rachel Levin Victor Asal 151

12 Analyzing Pathways of Lone-Actor Radicalization: A Relational Approach Stefan Malthaner Lasse Lindekilde 163

13 Constructing Cultures of Martyrdom Across Religions, Time, and Space Mia Bloom 181

14 Introducing the Government Actions in Terror Environments (Gate) Data Set Laura Dugan Erica Chenoweth 193

15 The World Versus Daesh: Constructing a Contemporary Terrorist Threat Scott Englund Michael Stohl 208

Conclusion: Understanding How Terrorism is Constructed Scott Englund Michael Stohl Richard Burchill 223

Contributors 231

Index 233

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