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Last updated: May 14th, 2011


Dark Smoke Against a Skyline
September 11th Terrorist Attacks

Terrorism is one of the most evil and destructive things that happens in our world. Terrorism causes a great deal of human suffering, and I believe, accomplishes nothing positive.

It is hard to define terrorism, as the labelling of a group or action as terrorist (or not) is often done with political motivations. Groups labelled by others as terrorists often describe themselves as "freedom fighters" and see their actions as justified. Similarly, groups opposing the actions or goals of another group are often quick to label that group as terrorists in order to paint a negative picture. I do think there is a clear and more objective way to define terrorism:

A definition of terrorism:

I define actions as terrorist if they fit all of three criteria: they are violent, they target civilians, and they target people based only on their membership in a certain group.

Examples of terrorism by this definition:

Examples of actions which are not terrorism:

Actions are terrorist, not groups:

People are terrorists to the degree to which they carry out terrorist actions. However, I believe that ultimately, only actions can be labelled as terrorist. I believe that labelling actions, not groups, as terrorist is ultimately more empowering and constructive for ending terrorism. Labelling a group as terrorist, even when that group is carrying out terrorist actions, creates a self-fulfilling prophesy which encourages that group to engage in more terrorism.

Groups of people are complex; even groups that carry out terrorist actions or support terrorism do a number of things that do not qualify as terrorism. For example, some groups may attack military targets and kill members of an enemy military, and these would be military actions (whether or not they were good or justified is another question), but the same group may then go and kill civilians based on membership in a certain ethnic or national group. This group would have carried out both military and terrorist actions. Some groups also engage in governmental functions. A good example of such a group is Hamas: Hamas functions as a political party in the Gaza strip, conducts military actions, and also carries out terrorist attacks both on Israeli civilians and at times on its own civilians.

What causes terrorism?

I believe that terrorism is caused by a persistent and irrational belief that a certain group of people is somehow sub-human and not deserving of respect and human rights. Terrorism questions the innate worth of all human beings, and it is not possible for some to support terrorism or carry out terrorist acts if they are living out a belief in the inherent worth of all human beings.

Terrorism is often fueled by escalation of conflict. It can also be exacerbated by legitimate tensions or frustrations about economic factors or oppression by a more powerful group. Terrorism can also be fueled by ideological clashes.

How to stop terrorism:

I think that terrorism is best overcome by waging a war of information, values, beliefs, and culture, rather than by killing people. I also think that transparency can halt terrorism. Terrorism is fueled by extremism and escalation of conflict, so attempting to fight it with violence is doomed to failure. If you kill a leader of an organization responsible for terrorist attacks, the leader becomes a martyr. If you kill people directly responsible for terrorists acts, the group they are a member of can simply recruit more people.

Terrorism is defeated by de-escalating conflict, building cultural understanding, promoting clear-thinking and respect for the innate worth of all human beings, and by addressing any sort of driving economic or political causes of tension which are fueling the terrorism. Approaching the members of groups which carry out or support terrorist actions as worthless or sub-human is the worst possible thing to do, because it is this very view which is at the core of terrorism.

Transparency is important for fighting terrorism, as terrorism relies on a flow of money, weapons, and supplies that cannot be easily traced. Even when a government or other political body supports terrorism, they usually do not want to be openly identified as doing so, for fear of public embarrassment and political, diplomatic, or military retaliation. Terrorism thrives in an environment where funds and foreign aid are untraceable; building a more transparent government and foreign aid system is thus important for stopping terrorism.

Terrorism is ultimately defeated only by a belief in the innate worth of all human beings:

People commit terrorist acts only when they are failing to embrace the belief that all human beings have innate worth. The best way to help people to embrace this belief is to show them that they have innate worth, to reach out to them with the message: "You're better than these acts." Labelling someone as a terrorist will just induce them to commit more terrorist acts. Embracing someone as a human who has erred by committing tragic and violent acts views them as someone capable of redemption and still possessing self-worth. Viewing the groups that support and carry out terrorism as having the potential to do good in the world will de-escalate the conflict, and open up the door to these groups moving away from terrorism and moving into actually helping people and doing something constructive.

The best way to achieve this goal and defeat terrorism is to start with yourself. Embrace the idea that all people, including those who commit terrorist acts, have innate value. This does not make their actions any less evil, and it does not mean that their acts need to go unpunished. But it means that you are still respecting and valuing them as human beings. This approach will ultimately be much more effective at ending terrorism than any attempt that relies solely on force or violence.

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