Social Movements and “Terrorism”: “And if that’s what a terrorist is, I want to be a terrorist.”

By Robert White

There has never been a period of peace in Ireland.  And they tell us that’s because the fucking Irish are always causing the trouble. … They started it off.  They formed a national army to take over Ireland.  Colonize it.  They kept the army here over a period of a couple of hundred years after that, to hold it.  They then planted it with Protestants. … They formed a very tight, close-knit society, where no Catholic or no Irish person, ethnic Irish, could join. … And they ruled Ireland with a mailed fist.  Literally.  A grasp of iron and nobody stepped out of line.  And it’s only natural that a people are going to breed at some stage someone who says, “I am not going to take that.”  Now what does that make him?  Does that make him a rabble-rouser?  Does it make him a troublemaker?  Does —  it ought to.  I mean obviously if he stands up and hits back it makes him a combatant.  A combatant, right?  And it makes him therefore eventually a rabble-rouser and a murderer and a terrorist, you know?  And if that’s what a terrorist is, I want to be a terrorist.

— Provisional Irish Republican Army veteran (1984).

Scholars and government officials have spent countless pages trying to define “terrorism.”  They should instead follow Charles Tilly’s definition of political violence:

any observable interaction in the course of which persons or objects are seized or physically damaged in spite of resistance (Tilly 1978, p. 176).

What is often termed “terrorism” is more properly the use or threat of political violence.

A virtue of Tilly’s definition is it acknowledges that state and non-state actors engage in (and threaten) political violence.  Unfortunately, many scholars who study “terrorism” explicitly exclude state actions from their definition or they include the potential for state violence and then selectively focus on non-state activists.  This is misguided, at best.

From my perspective, “terrorism” is a label used by elites to smear dissenters.  For example, The Guardian reports that the Chinese government has referred to the Dalai Lama’s prayers for self-immolating monks as “terrorism in disguise”.

The Syrian government has accused CNN journalists of collaborating with “terrorists”.  Instead of being worthy of a special definition, behaviors often linked with “terrorism,” like suicide bombings and airplane hijacking, are better seen as part of the repertoire of action available to social movement activists, as are peaceful marches, self-immolation and rebellion (Tilly 1978).

Since the 1970s, social movement scholars have accepted that protest lies on a continuum, ranging from mundane actions like signing petitions to extreme actions like flying a hijacked airplane into the World Trade Center.  To quote William Gamson,

In place of the old duality of extremist politics and pluralist politics, there is simply politics (Gamson, 1975, p. 138).

This approach informed resource mobilization and political process theories, and helped lay the foundation for research on micro-mobilization, contentious politics, and identity movements.  Building on the work of Gamson, Tilly, and others, “terrorism” is “simply politics by other means” (see Gamson, 1975, pp. 139).  Many “terrorists” were first involved in “normal politics” and only embraced armed struggle after they were victimized by state violence.  By repressing non-violent dissent states de-legitimate their own authority and foment violent dissent (see also della Porta, 1995, p. 201).  Calling violent dissenters “terrorists” helps authorities sidestep the fact that some violent dissenters have an understandable reason for their actions.

Instead of treating “terrorism” as a special form of social movement activism, we should consider the implications of labels like “terrorism” and “terrorist.”  In my experience, and notwithstanding the comments of the Provisional IRA veteran above, most “terrorists” reject the label.

The Irish Republican Movement has a lengthy history and a primary goal of a united, independent, Ireland.  Ruairí Ó Brádaigh joined the political party Sinn Féin in 1950 and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1951.  In 1956, the IRA began a military campaign to re-unite Ireland.  In 1957, while imprisoned on IRA-related offenses, Ó Brádaigh was elected to the Dublin parliament.  He never took his seat; he did escape from an internment camp.  When the IRA ended its campaign in 1962, he was Chief of Staff.  The “Provisional” IRA was established in 1969.  Its political wing, “Provisional” Sinn Féin, was established in 1970.  Ó Brádaigh served as President of Sinn Fein from 1970 until 1983.  When Sinn Féin split in 1986, he helped form Republican Sinn Féin, of which he became President (serving from 1987 until his retirement in 2009).

In 2004 the US Department of State, viewing Republican Sinn Féin as an alias of the “Continuity” IRA, designated the party a Foreign Terrorist Organization.  In 2009, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh commented on being described a “terrorist”:


The phrase “One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist” is not easily dismissed (see also Hoffman, 2006, 1-41).  History is littered with alleged “terrorists” who became constitutional politicians, including Eamon de Valera, Menachem Begin, Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuinnesss, and Gerry Adams.  There are countless others who engaged in “terrorism” for a time, retired from activism, and then went on with their lives.  At what point does someone become a “former terrorist?”  More important, who makes that determination?

Ó Brádaigh’s critics may dismiss his comments as self-serving, but scholars of social movements embark on a slippery slope if they ignore activists’ self-definitions.  We should not accept self-definitions at face value, but imposing a definition on an activist – violent or not – is done so at great peril, and more than a little hubris.  And if we want to understand why people engage in political violence, it is dubious to smear them with labels they reject.

State authorities selectively apply sanctions against alleged “terrorists.”  Consider the activist career of Gerry Adams, who succeeded Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as President of Sinn Féin and still holds the position.  Adams joined Sinn Féin in the 1960s.  In the spring of 1972 he was interned without charge or trial, but was released in the summer so he could participate in an IRA delegation that secretly met with British representatives.  Twice more he was held in custody in the 1970s (1973-77; 1978).  Adams has never been convicted of IRA membership and denies that he was ever a member of the organization, in spite of extensive evidence to the contrary.  In 1988, the Vice President’s Task Force on Combatting Terrorism, directed by George H.W. Bush, identified Adams and Martin McGuinness as the leaders of the Provisional IRA.  In the early 1990s, Adams was denied a visa to enter the United States and was excluded from Great Britain; at the same time, British representatives were secretly meeting with Provisional Irish Republicans.

In January 1994, in support of an incipient peace process, and against the wishes of the British government, the Clinton administration granted Gerry Adams a visa.  In August 1994, the Provisional IRA entered into a unilateral ceasefire, formally marking the start of the Irish peace process.  Adams again visited the US, the British lifted their exclusion order, and there followed meetings between British officials and Sinn Féiners.  By July 1995, however, the peace process stalled.  The British demanded IRA decommissioning before Sinn Féin was allowed entré to all-party talks.  The IRA rejected the demand.

In late July 2005, Adams held a press conference on the Falls Road, in Belfast, and offered his reaction to a proposed international commission of arms experts who might address the decommissioning issue:

It was widely assumed that Gerry Adams was a key figure in the Provisional IRA, yet the alleged “terrorist” held a press conference on a public street in a major, western city.  As he noted, Adams had recently met with Sir Patrick Mayhew, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  In December 1995, Adams would publicly shake hands with President Bill Clinton, when the latter toured Belfast.  Because of a lack of progress in the peace process, in February 1996, the Provisional IRA bombed the London docklands (Canary Wharf).  Publicly, meetings between Sinn Féin and the British ended; privately, they continued.  In the spring of 1997, after Sinn Féin did very well in an election, the British again met with them publicly.

When the authorities wanted to punish Adams and company, they were treated like “terrorists” – interned, arrested, denied a visa, excluded from Britain, and so forth.  When they wanted to work with Adams and company, secretly or openly, the authorities conveniently ignored the label (see Bew and Gillespie 1999; Powell, 2008; among others).

As it turned out, the Irish peace process was successful — in the eyes of most observers.  The Provisional IRA entered another unilateral ceasefire in July 1997 and multi-party negotiations culminated in the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement), in 1998.  Under the leadership of people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin was transformed into a constitutional political party and the Provisional IRA formally ended its campaign, in 2005.  Today, Sinn Féin participates in the Belfast and Dublin parliaments and offers a voice for people who went decades without political representation in those bodies.  Adams is a member of the Dublin parliament.  Adams’ critics, including Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Republican Sinn Féin, view participation in the peace process, and the Dublin and Belfast parliaments, as a sell-out.  They also note that there still is no united Ireland.

In terms of social movement theory, classics by Robert Michels (1915/1966) and Rosa Luxembourg (1908/1982), and more recent scholarship by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1978), provide frames for examining the social and political processes that moderate radical activists.  Whether or not Gerry Adams or Ruairí Ó Brádaigh were or are “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” is irrelevant to these theorists.  They are social movement activists.

I do not question that some scholars of “terrorism” have made significant contributions to our understanding of political violence.  I am not convinced, however, that social science will be best served by creating a field of  “terrorism studies.”  Theoretical tools already available allow for careful examination of the causes and consequences of small group political violence.

*I thank Mike Maitzen, of the Comm Tech Lab, IU School of Liberal Arts, IUPUI, for invaluable assistance with the video.  No portion of the video presentations may be copied or reproduced without the explicit permission of the author.


Bew, Paul and Gordon Gillespie. 1999. Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles, 1968-1999. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Gamson, William. 1975 The Strategy of Social Protest.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth (1st edition).

Hoffman, Bruce. 2006. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Luxembourg, Rosa. 1908/1982. Reform or Revolution. New York: Pathfinder Press.

Michels, Robert. 1915/1966. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward. 1978. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vantage.

Powell, Jonathan. 2008. Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. London: The Bodley Head.

Tilly Charles. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. New York: Random House.

Vice President’s Task Force on Combatting Terrorism. 1988. Terrorist Group Profiles. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.

White, Robert W. 1995. “Gerry Adams Press Conference: Falls Road, Belfast.”  July 25, 1995.

White, Robert W. 2009. “Ruairí Ó Brádaigh Interview.” June 2009.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Is Terrorism a Form of Activism?

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