The word terrorism is linked to the Latin word, ‘terrere’, which means to scare. Terrorism can be defined as the menace or the use of compulsive violence against civilians or a government that is aimed at inspiring fear, intimidating people, causing death or bodily harm or damage of property. Acts of terrorism include the taking of hostages, hijacking, bombings, cybercrimes, use of unregulated weapons of mass destruction with the purpose of provoking terror to a government, target persons, or a movement, thereby compelling them to refrain from doing something among other activities. Terrorism can also be defined as an act of killing or injuring people and damage of property by an organized group of people against a legitimate government for the purpose of tackling a real or invented injustice linked to it.
The origins of the word terrorism date back to the 18th century. It was used to refer to the reign of terror initiated by the French revolutionary government around 1790. The French revolution was tyrannizing its citizens; opponents to the revolution were terrorized for resistance to its policies and assassinations of its key officials. However, over the years in the 20th century, an attempt to come up with a concrete meaning of the word terrorism has been established. Scholars, national assemblies, lawyers, concerned organizations, and international bodies such as the United Nations have all tried to come up with the definition of the word terrorism.
The meaning of terrorism has changed over time. Communist and anarchism movements were among the first movements to practice terrorism by launching warfare on their governments. Communists were fighting for economic power; they wanted their economies to be controlled by the middle working class instead of the rich. Anarchists were fighting for the elimination of government rule; they believed after the fall of a government, people would live free from any coercion. The two movements had been determined to change the social order to their ideal society. Secondly, terrorism was practiced in the era of nationalism. After World War I, there was the creation of new nations. Minority and ethnic groups which felt sidelined from the mainstream nations would fight back to gain independence and autonomy. After World War II, terrorism has changed its face and has become a global issue. It has developed from the idea of the anti-colonial uprising to other types of conflict. It has affected diplomatic relationships among countries that are inclined toward terrorism. Terrorism was much more common in Europe and the Middle East, but in the modern world, it has become global.
After World War II, the targeting of civilians started to rise during terrorist attacks. Terrorists have targeted civilians of their enemy in order to gain recognition of their actions. Previously before the September 11 attack, it was generally believed that terrorists would not go to a certain extreme of targeting a very large number of civilians. Terrorism has moved to a new level since its perpetrators have resolved to suicide bombing and mass murder.
Technology has changed the meaning and face of terrorism. Development in information technology through the use of computers and the internet has revolutionized terrorism. The internet has boosted communication activities of the terrorist without being noticed. The evolution of technology has increased terrorist potential to wider attacks due to the benefits trickled down by the internet and technological innovations. This has even brought a new terrorism strategy through cyber terrorism where terrorists can hack into government systems in order to gather information to be used for their attacks. Modes of terrorist attacks have also changed over the years. The use of bombs and bases has been beefed up to the use of missiles and shuttles.
In the modern world, it is difficult to define terrorism. Classification of terrorism into various types makes it difficult to define terrorism from other related phenomena. It is difficult to differentiate between acts of terrorism and a civil disorder. In both, the normal functioning of society is disrupted. Political terrorism and civil war will both instill fear in a country’s population, yet both are carried out for political intention. Structural terrorism or state terrorism and dictatorial rule in a country are not easy to distinguish since, in both, their leaders aim at accomplishing a political goal. In addition, they instill fear and oppress the citizen with their rule.
Another reason why it is difficult to define terrorism is the lack of a universal definition of terrorism. There are many versions of definitions depending on a country, organizations’ threats, and countries’ foreign policy, among others. Most often, these definitions overlie each other while others are just replication of others with minor adjustments.
Distinguishing terrorism from other criminal acts has proved to be very difficult as both are related. In both, there is premeditated murder, and the penalties for such acts are severe, like life imprisonment or death sentence. People also linked to such acts should be punished as well. The difference arises in proving a violent murder act is either terrorism or a criminal act. For a criminal act, the proof has to show that the objective was to kill people, while that of terrorism the prove has to show the perpetrators had a political mission. The manner in which a terrorism act is treated is far much different from a criminal act. Terrorism murder is treated as if it was murder for hire, while criminal murder is treated as first-degree murder. In some countries, there are separate terrorism acts and criminal acts, while in some countries like Australia, the criminal act was amended to include terrorist activity. Detention of terrorism suspects is different from detention of criminal act suspects. Law enforcement agencies have more powers while tackling terrorism acts, unlike those vested in criminal acts.