Should we abandon the tag?

Quoting Wikipedia:

The word "terrorism" is politically and emotionally charged,[5] and this greatly compounds the difficulty of providing a precise definition. Studies have found over 100 definitions of “terrorism”.[6][7] The concept of terrorism may be controversial as it is often used by state authorities (and individuals with access to state support) to delegitimize political or other opponents,[8] and potentially legitimize the state's own use of armed force against opponents (such use of force may be described as "terror" by opponents of the state).[8][9]

For example, this question is tagged terrorism. It is about an armed conflict between a government, islamists and secular separatists. I consider the label terrorism debatable, and maybe we should avoid the tag altogether and make it a synonym with e.g. or or something more neutral sounding.


5 Answers 5


If tags are being used properly, this issue should take care of itself.

A political site will almost certainly host questions about the subject of terrorism. But be sure questions tagged are actually *about* the subject of "terrorism". It is a useful tag if that is what the question is actually about… even if the definition is hard to pin down. That might even be the subject of the question itself.

But if the tags is being applied to questions that just happen to involve those activities, that's not what tagging is for. First, labeling the content "terrorist" is a largely meta to the actual question; and second, that's not what the question itself is actually about.

So there is a legitimate use for this tag. You just have to be sure to use it correctly:

Does any organization refer to itself as terrorist?Good
Why is France involved in Mali?Bad

  • In other words, if the question is about terrorist activity (targeting of civilians for political goal) of "Ansar Dine", it should be tagged "Terrorism". If the question is about armed conflict of that same group that doesn't directly involve discussing the acts of terrorism by them (fighting with Mali/French army), it should NOT be labeled thus, even if the organization itself may be involved in acts of terrorism overall and is affiliated with al-Quaida.
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 16:25

If we removed the tag, how would we tag the other question that currently carries it?

Personally I think any tag like is somewhat redundant on politics.stackechange.com ... and seems over-broad. There are other alternatives, but is equally loaded in the other direction, and isn't common enough to avoid being misunderstood IMO.

The word "terrorism" is undoubtedly problematic - whole books have been written about that fact - but it's an important concept in political discourse, and the fact that it's problematic can in itself throw up interesting questions.

  • The other question is actually about the definition of terrorism, so the problem doesn't really apply there; but if we do have the tag, people will use it in loaded cases. I'm not sure if political-violence is redundant here; questions about criminal violence or police violence would not be political violence.
    – gerrit
    Jan 18, 2013 at 16:04
  • I think it makes more sense to allow the tag, and use the usual mechanisms for dealing with subjective or loaded content in the question. The problem is that lots of political terms are loaded - "socialist", for example, is an insulting term in the minds of many people in the US, but simply descriptive elsewhere in the world.
    – user97
    Jan 18, 2013 at 16:18
  • @gerrit - how about we adopt the most straightforward definition of terrorism possible that doesn't allow any political spin/games. "Deliberate targeting of non-combatant civilians with intent to kill/injure them, to achieve a political goal". Notice the distinction between deliberate targeting and not. If someone has a choice between harming a civilian and NOT, and chooses the former on purpose, they are a terrorist. If they don't have such choice, but WOULD have preferred to have such choice, and had they had the choice would have chosen the latter, they are not engaged in terrorism.
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 16:22
  • @ZeroPiraeus - as an aside, "asymmetric-warfare" != "terrorism". They may use the same tactics, but the former is against combatants and the latter non-combatants. While a specific government may refer to asymmetric warfare against its troops as "terrorism" (e.g. Turks against PKK), as long as no civilians are targeted, it's not "terrorism". Source: UNSG report from 2004, and Wiki definition.
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 16:28
  • @DVK I see where you're coming from on 'asymmetric-warfare' vs 'terrorism', although I'm a little less optimistic than you re: the possibility of nailing these kinds of definitions down.
    – user97
    Jan 19, 2013 at 18:57

Caveat: this answer contains a moderately long, and perhaps subjective, description of the past actions of one group often described as terrorist, and a tangent on the current actions of a state. I don't intend to start a debate on the politics surrounding those actions here, but in order to make my point, it's necessary to go into a little more detail than would normally be the case in a Meta post.

This is a response to DVK's answer (I suspect it will be a little too long to add as a comment).

I see a problem with restricting the definition to actions which "deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians)". In the second half of the 20th century, the most significant organisation involved in what most observers described as terrorist activity in the UK was the Provisional IRA.

The Provisional IRA has claimed throughout its existence that it is not a terrorist organization, using pretty much the same argument that DVK makes. Its targets have, in general, been:

  1. What it sees as a military occupation of the north of Ireland, and

  2. The infrastructure of what it sees as the occupying power, namely the United Kingdom.

Approximately one third of the casualties attributed to Provisional IRA actions have been civilians. However, the organisation made a point of issuing warnings prior to its attacks (at least, those on infrastructure targets), and claimed that these casualties were not intended (and that the UK was ultimately responsible for them). It would, therefore, claim that it neither deliberately targetted nor disregarded the safety of non-combatants.

Nevertheless, if you ask pretty much anyone in the UK mainland who lived through their campaign whether the Provisional IRA were engaged in terrorist activity, you'll get an emphatic "yes" in response, and an argument along the lines that their civilian casualties were unintended ... well, to be polite, it's unlikely to be well received in most quarters.

The problem is one of judging the honesty of declarations of intent. The IRA were fully aware that their actions were likely to cause significant civilian casualties, and as such, it's plausible to assert that those casualties were intended.

At the very least, a question along the lines of "Is the Provisional IRA a terrorist organization?" is a reasonable one, and one that cries out for the tag .

The example of the Provisional IRA is not, by any means, an isolated one. It would not be difficult to construct an argument that US drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan amount to terrorist activity; while of course the US military will claim that the high level of civilian casualties caused by such attacks are unfortunate accidents (and likely make an "our opponents are ultimately responsible" argument analogous to that of the Provisional IRA), based on the evidence so far it would be absurd for them to claim that they are unaware of the likely consequences of those attacks.

A reasonable person, therefore, could argue that a party which takes an action in the full knowledge that said action will cause civilian casualties is responsible for those casualties, and that claiming they are unintended is at best irrelevant, and at worst mendacious.

In summary: it's complicated. Realistically, I don't think it's possible to give an objective definition of terrorism, or at least one which has a chance of reaching a consensus.

However, I stand by my previously-stated position that the tag is useful. Attempting to find synonyms smacks of bowdlerism to me, frankly, and the subject is one which is worth raising questions about (even if that means questions using the tag need to be moderated with more care than others).

  • Actually, in case of drone strikes, the ethical question is easily resolved - the ultimate guilty party are the people who violate Geneva convention twice, by (1) Conducting warfare without uniform and (2) By hiding among civilian population. As I noted in my answer, the easy discriminator is very simple - would USA have preferred to kill the same exact militants it targets with drones with zero civilian casualties if they had that chance/option? The answer is a clear and unequivocal "yes". It's only terrorism if the answer is "NO" - if they WANT the civililan casualties as intended result
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:02
  • You may assign different ethical good/evil judgements to deciding to pronounce a certain level of civilian collateral damage is "acceptable" as a cost of taking out a certain opponent who hides AMONG said civilians and can't be gotten any other way. But if you would have IMMEDIATELY chosen an option to kill that opponent with zero civilian casualties had that been an option, it's not terrorism, since civilians are not an INTENDED target. See my answers' parallel between homicide and murder, which has both legal and ethical (as far back as Torah) distinction.
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:05
  • As far as Provos - If they are to be believed, then no they were not terrorists, if they (1) Never deliberately targeted civilians; (2) Went out of their way to not target them, e.g. via warnings; and (3) When they HAD that option, attacked their targets to minimize civilian casualties. What is in question is merely whether their actions can be proven to confirm or disconform to those 3 conditions.
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:08
  • OK, I fibbed a little - Provos were also in SLIGHT gray territory that can be argued over in that they considered British Royal Family as combatants. I'm not fully sure what the moral/ethical angles on that are (both from "they are hostile government" angle, AND on "they are not functional actors in said government" angle)
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:10
  • As an aside, I think both your meta answer (this one) and my comment responses MIGHT be on-topic for main site as a Q/A. May be worth asking as a separate Meta question. @Robert - do you feel that this can be made into Q&A that's objective with some massaging?
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:14
  • @DVK Note that ZeroPiraeus did not make the particular argument about drone-strikes, but merely said It would not be difficult to construct an argument that; of course such an argument could be a starting point for a lengthy discussion, one I might be interested in having, but the comments to this answer are not the most suitable place to do so.
    – gerrit
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:44
  • Also, I'd like to request to avoid the word Provos in this context, as it also refers to an entirely different political group.
    – gerrit
    Jan 19, 2013 at 22:45
  • @gerrit - can you clarify? Wiki says you're wrong, and my colloquial name is valid: The Provisional Irish Republican Army is also referred to as PIRA, the **Provos**, ...
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 23:29
  • @gerrit - also, see "en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provo_(disambiguation)"
    – user4012
    Jan 19, 2013 at 23:36
  • @DVK, my point was just that the word Provo refers to two unrelated groups. I was aware of only one of them (the other one) so for me your usage was confusing.
    – gerrit
    Jan 20, 2013 at 10:27

I disagree that is overly broad, but it doesn't get at the common usage of the word terrorism either. Armed conflict would include things like the Mali question, but exclude lone wolf terrorism or other "terror events" like a specific bombing that didn't directly lead to all out . Having said that, I do think the Mali question is not just outside the scope of the terrorism tag, but that tag goes so far as to harm the validity of the question itself.

I would be in favor of a tag that redirected to. This fixes the potential misrepresentation of the Mali question, includes smaller scale terrorist activities, is a common enough usage to be understood even by less nuanced readers, and just most closely matches the scope of .


No, the tag should not be abandoned.

However, we should use the most stable and narrow definition of terrorism when using the term. Quoting from the Wiki:

In November 2004, a United Nations Secretary General report described terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act"

and from the main definition at the start of the article,

... and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians)

The words in bold are mine, and in my opinion serve as critical distinction to allow non-ambiguous definition.

Yes, there are over 100 possible definitions of terrorism, as your question noted from the Wiki article. But every single one that I'm aware includes the acts perpetuated against non-combatants/civilians, on purpose, no matter what else questionable extra activity is included.

Therefore, we can all unambiguously agree (as Wiki does) that SOME acts can be label as "terrorist" acts (deliberately targeting non-combatants/civilians to affect political purposes), and any questions dealing with such actions or organizations doing such actions may use such tag.

In other words, someone's political goals are irrelevant (and usually subjective). Their ultimate motivations are largely irrelevant. Their excuses are largely irrelevant (responding with a terrorist act to another side's terrorist act doesn't make you any less of a terrorist). Their choice of target of violence is the only criteria.

Please note that deliberate targeting is important.

If you aim at a combatant but (either due to faulty intelligence, or faulty aim, or lack of choice) hurt non-combatants you didn't WANT/INTEND to hurt, you may be guilty of being many things (from poor soldier to war criminal depending on circumstances), but if your goal was - if possible - to NOT kill said civilians, you were not engaged in an act of terrorism (think the difference between murder and homicide).

HOWEVER, the tag should NOT be abused in any of the two ways, to avoid subjectivity and discussions:

  1. As @Robert's answer noted, it should not be used for questions that deal with topics which may tangentially touch on terrorist acts or actors, but where said terrorism is irrelevant/tangential to both the question and the answers.

    Mali question is a great example - yes, one side of the conflict includes/consists of al-Quaida affiliate, and no, the question's meat, nor any good answer, have anything to do explicitly with terrorist activity.

  2. The tag should NOT be applied to activity which may likely generate controversy as far as whether it's "terrorism" or not, as per suggested definition above.

    For example, attacking uniformed military engaged in military activity is NOT terrorism, even if the political goals and military tactics used would be 100% identical to a terrorist attack.

    "Ansar Dine" blowing up a Mali military convoy is "guerilla warfare", "asymmetric warfare", whatever. But not terrorism. Same bomb by same people blowing up a market/cafe/mosque IS terrorism.

  • DVK: I have some thoughts on this answer, which were too long to add as a comment.
    – user97
    Jan 19, 2013 at 18:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .