Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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2 Terrorism and its meanings

In this section, you will consider a number of definitions and discussions of terrorism, particularly relating to the international situation, post-9/11.

The notion of terrorism can be problematic. It is often challenged and contested, something expressed in the aphorism (which for some is now largely a cliché) ‘One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.’ For instance, while it is widely acknowledged in the UK that the Provisional IRA was a terrorist movement, few would accept the then South African government’s characterisation of the African National Congress in similar terms. There is no commonly accepted ‘official’ definition of terrorism, something that reflects the fact that neither modern states nor groups designated as ‘terrorist’ apply the term to themselves.

Some people adhere to a broad definition of terrorism in which nation states, not just non-state actors, can themselves be guilty of terrorism. Left-wing critics often claim that Western policy makers use the term ‘terrorist’ simply to demonstrate – and to generate – hostility toward groups of which they disapprove. Others strongly reject this view, describing terrorism as ‘the use of violence against civilians by non-state actors to attain political goals’ (Kydd and Walter, 2006, p1).

The term can also serve ‘an ideological function, for it implies crude extremism and indifference to human life’ (Freedman, 2007, p327). It is thus used not only to classify and explain particular groups and individuals, but also to condemn and marginalise them.

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