Defining Terrorism

Apolitical Perspective

There is no area of debate more done in the Model UN world that “Defining Terrorism.”  Everyone has their own informal definition as to what they think terrorism is — but it has been impossible to come to a consensus either domestically or globally.

What is Terrorism?

The United Nations draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which has been under discussions since 2000, suggests:

“1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person, by any means, unlawfully and intentionally, causes:

(a) Death or serious bodily injury to any person; or
(b) Serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility or the environment; or
(c) Damage to property, places, facilities, or systems referred to in paragraph 1 (b) of this article, resulting or likely to result in major economic loss, when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

While this convention has yet to be ratified by the United Nations, it seems pretty agreeable if not overbroad.  Someone who breaks the law and intentionally causes death or serious injury, property, or does so in an effort to cause economic loss, or to intimidate a population, then terrorism has taken place.  But at the very base layer, a simple murder could therefore be considered terrorism.  That’s obviously not the goal here.

A 2004 United Nations Security Council Resolution states:

“criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature,”

This definition seems a little more plausible, but it’s important to note that it doesn’t suggest, “the definition of terrorism is X,Y, Z,” but instead suggests that these specific efforts reflect terrorism.

What Isn’t Terrorism?

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this debate is deciding what is not terrorism.  To the General Assembly definition, a simple murder is terrorism… so is someone knocking over a mailbox with a baseball bat.  So we can understand why the first definition can’t achieve ratification.  The Security Council version is much more specific as to what might rise to the level of terrorism, but it does not take into account government involvement or acts of war.  By their definition, the bombing of the former Libyan armed forces could be considered terrorism — the goal was to kill government fighters, and to compel the government of Moammar Gadhafi to step down.

Perhaps an even more complicated scenario is taking place in the Ukraine where Russian-backed forces are fighting to establish either an independent state, or to annex a section of Ukraine to later join Russia.  By all accounts, these rebels are seeking to kill, looking to compel a population and a government to take specific action, and to provoke a state of terror.  So too could the actions taken by Ukrainian military forces.

The U.S. Government Just Decided What Terrorism is Not.

In early September, the Treasury Department declared that the bombings that took place at the Boston Marathon in 2013 were not in fact terrorism.  If you recall, two individuals created bombs out of pressure cookers and exploded them at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  While the case has yet to be decided in court, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that the bombings were carried out by disaffected members of the population, sought bodily injury, and were designed to cause terror.  But apparently it doesn’t rise to the bar of terrorism.

It’s important to note the language that political leaders have used to define the Boston bombings.  In the days after the explosions, President Obama stated:

This was a heinous and cowardly act.  And given what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism.  Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror.  What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual.  That’s what we don’t yet know.  And clearly, we’re at the beginning of our investigation.

At his speech at the first anniversary of the bombing, Vice President Biden stated:

“Next Monday, on Patriots’ Day, when I’m told up to 36,000 people will line up to start the marathon, you will send a resounding message around the world not just to rest of the world, but to the terrorists that we will never yield. We will never cower. America will never, ever, ever stand down. We are Boston. We are America. We respond. We endure. We overcome. And we own the finish line.”

What’s the Deal?

So if the president and vice president both consider the bombings to have been terrorism, why does the Treasury Department think otherwise?  And frankly, why does the Treasury Department get to decide?  Because there is a lot of money at stake.  First, there’s something called “Terrorism Insurance” and the “Terrorism Risk Insurance Program”, which are designed to backstop insurers required to cover losses due to damage caused by terrorism.  Second, this program only kicks in when losses exceed $5 million.

So next time you think something looks or feels like terrorism, don’t think about definitions, terror, malicious intent or anything like that.  Think about insurance policies and who might have to pay out on these claims.  Apparently they are the ones that really get to decide.

Michael Hinchliffe is the executive director of the Institute for Domestic & International Affairs, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to civics education and engagement.  His writings are designed to promote thought and do not necessarily reflect those of IDIA, its supporters, sponsors or participants.