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The Origin of “Terrorism”

2013 May 5
by Jason Nairn, CPP, CISSP

“Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

Maximilien Robespeirre, Report on the Principles of Political Morality, 5 February 1794

Robespierre made the case that his regime de la terreur of 1793-94 was “virtuous” in its restoration of order after the French Revolution.  And it is from these beginnings, the “Reign of Terror”, that the term, “terrorism” has its roots.  Since that time, the word has become a useful moniker to attach to those individuals, groups, or organizations that use fear and violence for political purposes or that for political reasons need to be vilified.*

Robespierre believed that terror was the most effective method of ensuring virtue, and he would have defended his tactics eloquently and with an argument based in a scholarly study of government.  This is not meant as a defense of the Reign of Terror, but is intended to illustrate that as then, there is today little agreement on the concise definition of the word “terrorism”.  One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as they say.

Similarly, there is little agreement on the definition of “homeland security”.  While the federal act of the same name enacted in 2002 does provide a framework for defining the word in terms of the federal department,  like “terrorism”, “homeland security” can mean different things to different people.  It is important to understand the meanings (or potential meanings) of words used in the homeland security enterprise not because they explain homeland security, but because they expose some of the wicked problems of homeland security.

* – For more on the origins of “terrorism”, I recommend Bruce Hoffman’s book Inside Terrorism, available here.

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