Category Archives: Is Terrorism a Form of Activism?

Contributors to this essay dialogue were asked to evaluate the relationship between terrorism and social movements. Is terrorism an expression/tactic/tool of social movements? Are suicide bombing, mass suicides, and other tactics commonly associated with terrorism forms of activism/contentious action? If so, do our theoretical tools for analyzing social movements work well for understanding terrorism and its contentious forms of action? If not, why not, and what might some alternative perspectives be?

What is the relationship between terrorism and social movements?

By Robert Brym

Definitions of terrorism vary, depending on whose ox gets gored. For example, U.S. Code, Title 22, Ch. 38, Para. 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” (Cornell University Law School, 2012). By this definition, the exercise of indiscriminate state violence against noncombatant targets for military and political purposes is not terrorism, but a violent act of resistance against occupation or ethnic, religious or national oppression may be. Sharply put, your ox is a terrorist when he gores mine, but my ox gores yours with legitimacy.

In contrast to terms that refer to specific forms of violence that can be defined independently of their legitimacy in the eyes of one party or another engaged in conflict – terms such as suicide bombing or state-directed assassination – terrorism is a term that always takes sides. Accordingly, a case can be made for expunging “terrorism” from the sociological lexicon in favor of value-neutral terms that describe specific forms of violence. Continue reading

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Terrorism: a loss/loss outcome

By Anthony Oberschall

There is no agreed-upon definition of terrorism, but most agree that it is collective, not individual; it is political, not criminal (although some terrorists morph into criminal); it is covert; and it is violent, the violence striking without warning and often victimizing indiscriminately officials, combatants and non-combatant civilians alike, including those belonging to groups the terrorists stand for. In the confrontation between insurgents and states, between challengers and regimes, terrorism is one of several modes of confrontation ranging from peaceful and conventional political action to extremes of collective violence.

State terrorism occurs when a regime resorts to mass violence and extra judicial killings (as with assassination squads) against its own citizens, non-combatants and insurgents alike, as happens in violent conflicts between a regime and an ethnic, religious or national minority. Continue reading

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