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Boston bombing: What is terrorism?

The Boston Marathon bombing once again has Americans asking, "Is this terrorism?" And more broadly, "What is terrorism?"

Read: 10 Essential points about the Boston Marathon bombers, Islam, and America

When a white man or kid murders dozens of children, we don't ask whether the predominant Christian religion in America somehow radicalized him, or whether his upbringing was somehow less American than anyone else's. Stupid questions! Glad we don't ask them. Bias against Muslims is real and it hurts. And the easiest way to radicalize un-radicalized people is to treat them like enemies. Read more >>>

There is neither an academic nor an international legal consensus regarding the definition of the term "terrorism". Various legal systems and government agencies use different definitions of "terrorism". Moreover, the international community has been slow to formulate a universally agreed upon, legally binding definition of this crime. These difficulties arise from the fact that the term "terrorism" is politically and emotionally charged.
Angus Martyn in a briefing paper for the Australian Parliament has stated that "The international community has never succeeded in developing an accepted comprehensive definition of terrorism. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United Nations attempts to define the term foundered mainly due to differences of opinion between various members about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination." These divergences have made it impossible to conclude a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that incorporates a single, all-encompassing, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism.
In the meantime, the international community adopted a series of sectoral conventions that define and criminalize various types of terrorist activities. In addition, since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly has condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism: "Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."
A 2003 study by Jeffrey Record for the US Army quoted a source (Schmid and Jongman 1988) that counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements. Record continued "Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur also has counted over 100 definitions and concludes that the 'only general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence.' Yet terrorism is hardly the only enterprise involving violence and the threat of violence. So does war, coercive diplomacy, and bar room brawls".
As Bruce Hoffman has noted: "terrorism is a pejorative term. It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one's enemies and opponents, or to those with whom one disagrees and would otherwise prefer to ignore. (...) Hence the decision to call someone or label some organization 'terrorist' becomes almost unavoidably subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathizes with or opposes the person/group/cause concerned. If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violent act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive (or, at the worst, an ambivalent) light; and it is not terrorism."[3] For this and for political reasons, many news sources (such as Reuters) avoid using this term, opting instead for less accusatory words like "bombers", "militants", etc. In many countries, acts of terrorism are legally distinguished from criminal acts done for other purposes.[Wiki]
Islam: No to Terrorism
Killing of innocent people whether Muslim or non Muslim is strictly forbidden in Islam. Allah says: “..whoever kills a person, except as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land, it will be written in his book of deeds as if he had killed all the human beings and whoever will save a life shall be regarded as if he gave life to all the human beings..”(Qur’an;5:32), “You shall not kill anyone whom God has forbidden, except for just cause under the law. If anyone is killed unjustly, We have granted the right of retribution to his heir, but let him not carry his vengeance too far in killing the culprit through taking the law in his own hands, as he is supported by the law.”(Qur’an;17:33). The verse number 5 & 6 of Surah Tuba (Chapter Number 9 – The Repentance) from Qur’an are most frequently misquoted, out of context by critics of Islam, to create misunderstanding, as a part of deliberate campaign  to malign and project Islam as barbaric religion. Killing is only permitted in the state of war. Allah says: “But when the forbidden months are past then fight and slay the idolaters wherever you  find them and seize them beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.”(Qur’an;9:5), “If anyone from the idolaters ask you for asylum, grant it to him so that he may hear the Word of Allah, and then escort him to the place of safety: this should be done because these people do not know the truth.”(Qur’an;9:6). Keep reading >>>

We asked ourselves those questions the moment we heard the news. Our news anchors asked for the next 24 hours (though they were clear to say at first that they did not know if it was terrorism). President Obama - thankfully - was careful not to use the word in his first press conference on the day of the bombings. But later on the following day - on Tuesday - Obama said, "Any time bombs are used to target civilians, it is an act of terrorism."
Boston Bombming news>>>
Terrorism has come to signify race and religion though everyone is careful not to say so, writes author, Laura Beth Nielsen: An asssociate Professor of Sociology and Director of Legal Studies, Northwestern University, and research professor for the American Bar Foundation. She is the author of License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech and is part of The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fe

What does it mean when we say something is "terrorism" and why does it matter?   
As a professor of Sociology and Law, I study how ordinary people understand the law and how the law itself, including law's categories and terms affect how people understand the world around them.

Using terms like "terrorism" shapes what ordinary people expect of the police, the justice system and our government. It affects what kind of punishment we want and the level of fear we feel about what is going on around us.  
But what is terrorism? The most obvious definition is that terrorism is a crime meant to terrorise. We know what these kinds of crimes are: they are the kind that make us afraid to send our children to school, like Columbine; make us afraid to go to work, like 9/11; or make us afraid even just to spend beautiful spring day competing with our friends competing in a footrace.  
Components of terrorism
And yet, we do not tend to think of Columbine as a terrorist act. It was a couple of kids with serious mental health problems and illegal access to guns and ammunition. Similarly, when some unknown person or persons poisoned a few bottles of Tylenol in Chicago in 1982, the US was terrorised. We do not tend to think of that incident as "terrorism", however. Why? Perhaps it is because we do not know the motivation of the criminal(s) since they have never been caught. Or, it could be because, despite the nation-wide response, the crime was most likely committed by an individual placing the poison in bottles already on store shelves.  
Terrorising, therefore, is clearly not the only component of terrorism.  
Maybe terrorism requires crimes committed for political reasons. The FBI admits there is no "standard, accepted definition of terrorism", but this is what constitutes terrorism for the FBI because US law defines terrorism as, "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives" (28 CFR Section 0.85).  
So many crimes meet this definition but that we would not call "terrorism". When a woman kills her husband because the police don't believe he is capable of domestic violence and won't protect her, it is a personal act of safety and a political act designed to change society.  

When civil rights activists led by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, illegally marched in the streets or sat at lunch counters marked "whites only", to help topple Jim Crow and transition the US into the modern era, they were most certainly using force for a political agenda. Called terrorists at the time, civil rights activists disavowed violence, but certainly used force and violence erupted. ACT UP famously brought HIV/AIDS to public and political notice by assaulting politicians by spilling real and fake blood on them in public places. While disruptive and unsettling at the time, was this terrorism? They were called terrorists at the time. 
Terrorising plus force plus political or social motives does not always constitute terrorism, therefore.  
Is terrorism defined by criminal action plus violence plus affiliation with some sort of group? Violent al-Qaeda actions clearly qualify as terrorism, but what about the Atlanta Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph? He was part of a political and social movement by his own admission. He was dedicated to illustrating the godlessness of the US.  
President Clinton labelled the bombing "an evil act of terror" the day after the bombing, although it took months to determine that Rudolph did it and even longer to find him. His movement rejected him, and while the Olympics and the US more generally were "terrorised", he was not convicted of "terrorism". And yet, the Atlanta bombing always comes up as an example of domestic terrorism, Rudolph was an extremist rejected by his own extremist religious organisations. He had political motives, but they largely existed in his mind alone.  
Using the word 'terrorist'
Similarly, Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirators (a total of four) were part of the "militia movement" but there was no real organised group supporting that destructive crime. They had beliefs that originated in and resonated with particular movements, but they did not represent that movement.  
On Tuesday, President Obama offered that, "anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terrorism" which provides another possibility: that terrorism is related to the type of force used. Public bombings, then, would always constitute terrorism. But how does this help us understand what is going on here? And why is a knife any different than a bomb if the effect is similar?  
One reason to use the word "terrorist" is simply pragmatic. When the police say this incident will be "investigated and treated like terrorism", it could indicate that more sophisticated resources will be brought to bear to find the perpetrator(s). A major industry certainly has developed around terrorism experts, responders and planners which may or may not be keeping us safer.  
What work is the word "terrorism" doing in these conversations? Is it helping us to make sense of things or is it subtly becoming a kind of shorthand for the people we do not like and the motives that are unfavourable? Terrorism has come to signify race and religion though everyone is careful not to say so.  
I am not the first person to question the definition and use of this word, but, like most Americans, I want to know who did this and why. And I want them brought to justice because on Tuesday, in Boston, a bomber or bombers committed multiple heinous murders and attempted murders. He, she or they endangered lives in public, committed assault, possession of explosives, and a host of crimes that District Attorneys are itching to charge. And right now, the use of the word "terrorism" is not helping us get there. 
Laura Beth Nielsen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Legal Studies, Northwestern University, and research professor for the American Bar Foundation. She is the author of License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech and is part of The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowship at NU. 
Follow her on Twitter: @ProfLBNielsenThe views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
More on Jihad, Extremism: 
  1. Jihad: Myth & Reality
  2. Takfir- Docrine of Terror
  3. Islamic Decree [Fatwa] Against Terrorism
  4. Rebuttal to  Anti-Islam FAQs
  5. Tolerance
  6. Rebellion by Khawarij Taliban & Shari’ah in Pakistan 
Americans [and Europeans] continue to live in mortal fear of radical Islam, a fear propagated and inflamed by right wing Islamophobes. If one follows the cable news networks, it seems as if all terrorists are Muslims. It has even ...

Religious edicts, of Israel's rabbis are drawing attention of the public to their frequent issuance and their impact on Israeli society. These often include excerpts of verses from the Torah which sanction the killing of non-Jews, .
Fatwa on Terrorism is a 600-page (Urdu version), 512-page (English version) Islamic decree by influential scholar Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri which demonstrates from the Quran and Sunnah that terrorism and suicide ...

Imam Shamil surrendered to Count Baryatinsky on August 25, 1859

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