What it is: The UK Prevention of Terrorism Act (1974) defined terrorism as ‘the use of violence for political ends’ including ‘any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear’. In the year 2000 the definition was extended in a revised Terrorism Act: it now covers the use or threat of serious violence intended to influence the government or to intimidate the public for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

What it means: The 1974 Act was created to deal with the Irish Republican Army’s terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland and Britain. It was intended to be temporary. The new Terrorism Act – it came into force in February 2001 – is permanent. There was widespread objection to it: its catch-all list of possible terrorist acts means that people protesting against (for example) GM crops, or committing civil disobedience, could be regarded as terrorists if the government so chose. The reference to political and religious causes is worrying, too: it could mean restrictions on free speech and free assembly, both of them human rights. After 2001 even tighter anti-terrorist measures were introduced.

Terrorism has been around for a long time, but in the 20th century terrorist action was turned to increasingly by people who felt it was the only way to get their views heard. There are plenty of examples. The underground Zionist terrorist organisation Irgun began attacking Palestinians long before the state of Israel was created, and sowed the seeds of the greater conflict and and oppositional terrorist groups. In Northern Ireland, as well as the IRA, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association have carried out terrorist acts to derail political agreements they rejected; though the IRA called a ceasefire in the 1990s, the group self-styled the Real IRA arose to resume operations.

By the 21st century, for most people terrorism meant Islamic extremists. These include militant groups in Asia with a stated aim to create independent Islamic states. There are also the individuals and groups loosely linked in a network called al-Qaida, believed to have been responsible for terrorist action in such widely separate places as Bali, Kenya, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen. Their strategy has been to attack, without warning, crowded commercial and civilian targets – such as oil tankers, tourist hotels, night-clubs, and on September 11 2001, office buildings in New York, and on March 11, 2004 railway stations in Madrid. The connection with the bombing of tube trains and a bus in London on July 7 2005 is as yet unproven. Some have been ready, and psychologically well-prepared, to die in action. Some people are driven to attack systems and institutions that can’t be protected from terrorist tactics by military might – it isn’t equipped to fight terrorists, who have no definable battle-front yet can do extensive harm.

But the powerful states have still chosen war instead of political procedures, even though terrorist threats have increased as a result. Governments have failed to ask, or answer, the key question: why does terrorism take place? They have given too little thought to dealing with the causes of terrorism, though most states have signed up to do just that in United Nations agreements. Taking repressive and violent action, or passing counter-terrorist laws that restrict everyone’s liberty (as in the USA and UK), only makes terrorists more patient, more resourceful, more determined. So do other acts of aggression like bombing a distant country (as the USA bombed Afghanistan in 2001), or torturing terrorist suspects after illegally imprisoning them (as happened in Iraq after the US and UK invaded it in 2003). And in countries where the people are discontented, oppressed, or desperate, terrorists may well get some support and encouragement for their appalling activities.

Think about it:
(1) Here is a definition of terrorism by a man who had witnessed several suicide bombings in Jerusalem: ‘Terrorism is a violation of all norms of behaviour, law and combat. Its objective is to demoralise, dehumanise, humiliate and horrify through acts of random and demonstrative viciousness’. A lot of questions here. There are other equally dreadful acts that ‘violate the norms of behaviour and law’: terrorism isn’t an exception. As for ‘combat’, the rules of war are broken routinely during war; and what about the violations of human rights that war commits? ‘Demoralise, dehumanise, humiliate’: being at the receiving end of these has made some people become terrorists. And they are odd words to use of the victims of terrorist action (or is it the horrified survivors who are dehumanised?). ‘Random’? – most terrorist acts are carefully targeted and planned, as acts of war are. And surprise attacks in war are considered good tactics. So just what is it about terrorism that many people find so particularly repellent? Is it that both the terrorists and their victims are civilians? Is it all right to bomb and murder if it’s the military doing it? It’s certainly true that every known kind of terrorist act has been carried out – and on a larger scale – by professional soldiers as part of war strategy. That includes the sudden and ‘covert operations’ so detested in terrorism. (As an SAS man said, ‘we have to beat the terrorists at their own game’.)

(2) It’s been pointed out that the US military and terrorists have something in common: they both think of themselves as fighting ‘evil’. It’s as well to be aware of this difference in perception, and to try to understand it. One writer who has no doubts says, ‘terrorism is evil because it seeks to frighten human beings rather than persuade them’. But that is also a standard tactic of military leaders. He goes on, ‘The fundamental sin of terrorism is not just that it kills and maims innocent human beings’ – just as the military do – ‘but it also corrupts faith in the possibility of rational and peaceful political change’. But isn’t that a defeatist attitude? The possibility of peaceful change is always present. The threat of terrorism should be driving people everywhere to put right the situations that make just a few become terrorists. Does the word ‘terrorist’ carry too much power? Think of the UN official who asked all his staff to stop using the word, because it was too emotional and stopped people thinking clearly: ‘you can point the finger at an enemy without going into details’. (He prefers the term ‘criminal assassin’.) What do you think?

(3) Even before 9/11, Americans were saying ‘anti-terrorist legislation doesn’t make us more safe, only less free’. Before then, also, a UK Muslim lawyer active in human rights said, ‘the Terrorism Act has the potential to identify every British Muslim as an Islamic terrorist. We are the new IRA.’ In the face of terrorism, shouldn’t it be all the more important to protect justice and human rights? In 2004 a French political commentator put these questions: ‘Are we now in a position where obsession with anti-terrorism will lead the major democracies to abandon the fundamental commitment to political rights? Is it possible that by establishing a state of emergency as normal, and making the police the centre of the state system, the democracies are committing suicide?’

(4) ‘Terrorism is a violent act of political desperation.’ However you choose to define ‘terrorism’, nothing can justify violence, and violence can’t justify anything. Political change can be achieved without that kind of despair. Gandhi demonstrated the power of nonviolent action to liberate the oppressed. Martin Luther King led a nonviolent revolution to give African Americans their proper status as citizens. It was the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, and the citizens who were working for a peaceful solution, that gave the marginalised Catholic minority some help: the terrorists only hindered this process. Brave and determined people the world over have helped to end repression and injustice, and they have done it without violence. What qualities, as well as courage and determination, do we need in order to become one of them?