Can a state commit acts of terrorism?

[Page references here are to Psychology of Terrorism, edited by Victoroff & Kruglanski.]

Yesterday Bravo22c posted a lengthy diatribe based partly on (assumptions he made about) a question I asked him some weeks ago: the question (as I recall it; he immediately deleted it) was ‘In your opinion, has the Russian state committed acts of terrorism against Chechen civilians?’

Yesterday’s post referred to my ‘profound ignorance of what a terrorist act is – both UK – and EU – legal definitions of terrorism specifically exclude State actors from the provisions of relevant law. (There is no agreed UN or other International definition.)’

[It is true that there is no agreed definition – V&K (p. 42) state that at least 109 definitions have been listed.]

So, Bravo is claiming that a state, by definition, cannot commit an act of terrorism because UK and EU law says so (no references supplied, incidentally). I see a couple of problems with this.

First, legislation specifies the meaning of words and concepts for the purposes of that legislation, in that jurisdiction, at that time. It cannot define and redefine the very language we use. Wherever that function may lie, it is outside the ambit of legislators (i.e. politicians). Legislation can only say ‘For our present purposes, terrorism is …’

Second, the legalistic definition of ‘terrorism’ to exclude state acts might very well be seen as pragmatic and ‘non-boat-rocking’ as opposed to principled: the foreclosure of an onus on states or transnational organizations to prosecute other states, which might lead to all kinds of trouble.

The V&K book deals with state or state-sponsored terrorism on pp. 5, 32, 33, 42–3, 50, 57, 68, 146, 202, 406, 410–17, and 435 (it has an excellent index, compiled by a highly competent freelancer ;-)). The first two words of its blurb – ‘Substate terrorism’ – in themselves imply that state terrorism also exists; otherwise ‘substate’ would be pleonastic.

There is far too much relevant and interesting material in the cited book to give in a blog, but I think the following (pp. 42–43) is particularly germane:

Caleb Carr stated that “terrorism … is simply the contemporary name given to the modern permutation of warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will [presumably via terror] to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable.” Carr fully realized that his definition “draws no distinction between conventional military and unconventional paramilitary forces.” Yet to him, this, precisely, was the point, because: Anyone who asserts that a particular armed force or unit or individual that deliberately targets civilians in the pursuit of a political goal is for some reason not an exponent of terrorism has no genuine interest in defining and eliminating this savage phenomenon, but is rather concerned with excusing the behavior of the nation or faction for whom he or she feels sympathy.

My case is that the question I asked (however one wished to answer it) was a fair one. That grave offence was taken is a reflection on the mentality of the offence-taker … not the asker.

Author: Brendano

I am a 54-year-old freelance editor living in rural Ireland with my wife, Pauline; our 21-year-old daughter, Susanna (when she’s not away at university); and two terriers. Our son, Sean, died suddenly on 17 October 2010, aged 19.

13 thoughts on “Can a state commit acts of terrorism?”

  1. None of which has any relevance whatsoever. Terrorism is defined in criminal codes. The criminal codes which apply to me are that of the UK and that of the benighted EU + whichever jurisdiction in which I am currently resident. I ‘claimed,’ nothing, simply stated what is, which is acknowledged as accurate.

    To be considered just as accurate, what should have been ritten is ‘Bravo22C wrote…’ A ‘claim’ implies that there may be dispute in what was written and, as is acknowledged here, there is none.

    I now retire to planet sensible, while whatever convolutions follow wend their weary way onwards.

  2. “I ‘claimed,’ nothing, simply stated what is, which is acknowledged as accurate.”

    Acknowledged by whom? You gave no references to support your claims, therefore they are mere claims.

    In any case, I have indicated the flaws in the concept of a purely legalistic ‘definition’ of a term. You have not addressed any of my points.

    How amusing that you recruit the organization you call the ‘EUSSR’ to support your case. Is everything the EU emits to be taken as unarguable truth, then? And does the meaning of words change on the whim of legislators?

  3. Nothing further from Bravo, then, who must be sticking doggedly (albeit silently) to his implication that many terrorism experts show ‘profound ignorance of what a terrorist act is’.

    So, his (unsupported) case remains that the deliberate terrorizing of civilians for political purposes is not necessarily terrorism.

  4. Good afternoon, Brendano.

    I get the distinct feeling that you and Bravo are destined to be forever talking at cross purposes.

    I’m not sure this helps, but I just thought I’d take a break from the gardening!

  5. Hello Araminta. I don’t see it as cross-purposes; I see it as B’s trademark brusque bluster deployed to close down debate or discussion of which he disapproves (see also his take on ‘superstition’).

    He is a natural bully, and I am not in the business of being bullied.

  6. Hello Brendano – Yes, I think a state can commit acts of terrorism both directly or indirectly, as an example Iran has for a long time sponsored Hamas and Hezbollah in their acts against Israel, that is an indirect act of terrorism but they also have other government organizations created for the sole purpose of fabricating terrorist acts, as an example the “World Terror Organization” which they started back in the 80s and received thousands of applicants in its first month alone.

    There are others of course, some of the acts perpetrated by Russia against Chechnya may well be considered acts of terrorism as might some of our own acts (America, Australia and Britain) in both Afghanistan and Iraq be considered acts of terrorism one day.

    Let’s not forget Somalia many years ago, Uganda and a few South American nations as well.

  7. If a private citizen kills another it is legally defined as “murder”. If the state kills a private citizen it is defined as “justice”. The end result is the same — someone dies. It is a matter of semantics rather than tangible difference. A recognised government and a terror cell might be guilty of committing the same acts for the same purposes but, because of their different legal statuses, would have their actions defined differently.

  8. Hello, Christopher … welcome to the site, and thanks for the comment. I think it’s an interesting question, but not many seem interested in discussing it.

    You say ‘If the state kills a private citizen it is defined as “justice”.’ Not necessarily … many servants of states have been convicted of murder when they killed outside the accepted parameters. But your general point stands, and it is my point too, really … states and ‘terrorist organizations’ are judged differently when they do essentially the same things, and states may be too readily excused and exonerated in the eyes of the world. The terminology is part of that … it is not just semantics. I think terrorism is to be deplored whether the actors be state or substate organizations.

  9. Thanks, Christopher. I wasn’t thrown off MyT, as it happens … I asked for my account to be deleted.

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