The most boiled down definition of ‘terrorism’ is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes” but this definition doesn’t capture all of the aspects or feelings that the word ‘terrorism’ conjures up in our post-9/11 world. In America, we rarely think of terrorism outside the context of Muslim extremists, Al Qaeda and suicide bombers despite the fact that we would only have to look back fifteen years to find an example of a major terrorist attack committed by American Timothy McVeigh.

So what elements should be included in a more descriptive definition of Terrorism? The most important would be: violence (specifically against non-combatants), the desire to spread fear and a political agenda. These elements are listed as the three most common found in the legal definitions of the United States, Germany and Britain (Barnett and Reynolds 15). I would also include the elements that the attack must be planned or deliberate, unpredictable, and carried out with the intent to be propagated.

To put this all in a one-sentence definition, terrorism is: the planned but seemingly indiscriminant use of violence against non-combatants, intended to be publicized for the purpose of inducing widespread fear to bring about political change.

Unfortunately, this still doesn’t give us a perfect image of what terrorism is. For example, by this definition would the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest the Vietnamese regime in 1963 be considered terrorists? All of the elements are present but it’s hard to group them with what we consider terrorists even after redefining terrorism.

Aaron Steichen

Sources: Terrorism and the Press an Uneasy Relationship by Brooke Barnett and Amy Reynolds,,