Terrorism: A Conundrum

A rudimentary etymological analysis of this troublesome word would indicate that it relates to a methodology or ideology concerning terror. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law defines Terrorism as “the unlawful use or threat of violence esp. against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion”1. However, Barnett and Reynolds articulate a poignant difference between two concepts that fall under this definition—terrorism and guerilla warfare: “unlike terrorism, guerilla warfare as a strategy seeks to establish physical control of a territory.”((2) page 19) While it is not difficult to add this difference to the given definition, a more subtle difference becomes apparent upon considering of the adage—“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

For example, to Israel, the assassin in “Munich” portrayed through Avner might easily seen as a national hero while the Palestinian attackers at the Munich Olympics would likely be considered terrorists. However, from a Palestinian point of view, these perceptions are completely reversed. Despite the difficulty of this word considering this clearly relative definition, the United Nations General Assembly has defined terrorism as “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public”3 while negating attempts to justify such acts using politics, philosophy, religion, etc. Due to the lack of relativism—instead, this definition labels both the Israeli and Palestinian killers in “Munich” as terrorists—this is likely as close to a universal definition for this conundrum of a word as we could desire.


  1. “Terrorism”. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam-Webster. 1996.
  2. Barnett, Brooke; Reynolds, Amy. Terrorism and the Press. New York: Peter Lang Publishing 2009.
  3. “A/RES/49/60 Measures to eliminate international terrorism”. United Nations General Assembly. December 1994. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/49/a49r060.htm