Is State Terrorism Different Than Terrorism?

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“State terrorism” is as controversial a concept as that of terrorism itself. Terrorism is often, though not always, defined in terms of four characteristics:

  1. The threat or use of violence;
  2. A political objective; the desire to change the status quo;
  3. The intention to spread fear by committing spectacular public acts;
  4. The intentional targeting of civilians. It is this last element - targeting innocent civilians - that stands out in efforts to distinguish state terrorism from other forms of state violence. Declaring war and sending the military to fight other militaries is not terrorism, nor is the use of violence to punish criminals who have been convicted of violent crimes.

History of State Terrorism

In theory, it is not so difficult to distinguish an act of state terrorism, especially when we look at the most dramatic examples history offers. There is, of course, the French government's reign of terror that brought us the concept of "terrorism" in the first place. Shortly after the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1793, a revolutionary dictatorship was established and with it the decision to root out anyone who might oppose or undermine the revolution. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed by guillotine for a variety of crimes.

In the 20th century, authoritarian states systematically committed to using violence and extreme versions of threat against their own civilians exemplify the premise of state terrorism. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin's rule are frequently cited as historical cases of state terrorism.

The form of government, in theory, bears on the tendency of a state to resort to terrorism. Military dictatorships have often maintained power through terror. Such governments, as the authors of a book about Latin American state terrorism have noted, can virtually paralyze a society through violence and its threat:

"In such contexts, fear is a paramount feature of social action; it is characterized by the inability of social actors [people] to predict the consequences of their behavior because public authority is arbitrarily and brutally exercised." (​Fear at the Edge: State Terror and Resistance in Latin America, Eds. Juan E. Corradi, Patricia Weiss Fagen, and Manuel Antonio Garreton, 1992).

Democracies and Terrorism

However, many would argue that democracies are also capable of terrorism. The two most prominently argued cases, in this regard, are the United States and Israel. Both are elected democracies with substantial safeguards against violations of their citizens' civil rights. However, Israel has for many years been characterized by critics as perpetrating a form of terrorism against the population of the territories it has occupied since 1967. The United States is also routinely accused of terrorism for backing not only the Israeli occupation but for its support of repressive regimes willing to terrorize their own citizens to maintain power.

The anecdotal evidence points, then, to a distinction between the objects of democratic and authoritarian forms of state terrorism. Democratic regimes may foster state terrorism of populations outside their borders or perceived as alien. They do not terrorize their own populations; in a sense, they cannot since a regime that is truly based on the violent suppression of most citizens (not simply some) cease to be democratic. Dictatorships terrorize their own populations.

State terrorism is a terrifically slippery concept in large part because states themselves have the power to operationally define it. Unlike non-state groups, states have legislative power to say what terrorism is and establish the consequences of the definition; they have force at their disposal; and they can lay claim to the legitimate use of violence in many ways that civilians cannot, on a scale that civilians cannot. Insurgent or terrorist groups have the only language at their disposal - they can call state violence "terrorism." A number of conflicts between states and their opposition have a rhetorical dimension. Palestinian militants call Israel terrorist, Kurdish militants call Turkey terrorist, Tamil militants call Indonesia terrorist.