For Counterterrorism Words Matter

Every good academic course on terrorism should begin with an inconclusive argument over the definition of the term 'terrorism.' The purpose of that debate is to explore the troublesome questions of legitimacy, targeting, and group dynamics that make terrorism not just a difficult word to define, but a vexing phenomenon to counter. As Menachem Begin recognized when he eschewed the convention of earlier anarchist militants to claim the title 'terrorist' and instead referred to the Irgun as "freedom fighters," terrorism is often a fight over language.

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Terrorism as Performance Art

By crafting attacks designed to provoke a draconian state response, terrorists hope to exploit the inevitable societal polarization that results to attract new recruits to their banner while undermining the state's own claim to be acting legitimately.

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Terrorism Is Not An Apocalyptic Threat

At present rates, an American's chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year. The number of people killed worldwide outside of war zones since 2001 by Islamist extremists of all shapes and varieties is a few hundred per year. This number is regrettable, of course. But it scarcely presents an existential or apocalyptic threat.

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Debate Abstract

In January, the Breakthrough Institute published its report, "Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs," arguing that despite warnings from politicians and terrorism experts that terrorists will pursue "exotic weapons and targets," al Qaeda continues "to carry out the same sorts of attacks they executed in the decades before 9/11."

In the past decade, hirabis have not used biological or chemical weapons, nor have they targeted dams, our food supply, or the Internet. Instead, "al Qaeda directed, financed, or inspired attacks have targeted planes, trains, buses, government and symbolic buildings, and western hotels with bombs (and sometimes assault weapons)."

Now, in a Breakthrough debate, terrorism experts John Mueller, Brian Fishman, and Tom Parker weigh in over the assessment of the terrorist threat, the importance of language when discussing terrorism, and whether we're simply playing into terrorists' hands.