What is distinctive about terrorism, and what are the philosophical implications?

In Timothy Shanahan (ed.), Philosophy 9/11: Thinking About the War on Terrorism. Chicago: Open Court. pp. 3-21 (2005)
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On September 11, 2001, Americans were painfully reminded of a truth that for years had been easy to overlook, namely, that terrorism can affect every person in the world – regardless of location, nationality, political conviction, or occupation – and that, in principle, nobody is beyond terrorism’s reach. However, our renewed awareness of the ubiquity of the terrorist threat has been accompanied by wide disagreement and confusion about the moral status of terrorism and how terrorism ought to be confronted. Much of the disagreement and confusion, I contend, is rooted in an inadequate understanding of just what it is that constitutes terrorism. In this paper, I offer the beginnings of a response to the challenge of terrorism by providing an account of what terrorism is and of some of the philosophical issues involved. My account is divided into two sections. In the first section I examine some of the difficulties involved in defining terrorism, and show that some of the most common “ordinary” understandings of terrorism are inadequate. In the second section I offer a working definition of terrorism that overcomes many of the difficulties outlined in the first section. I argue that terrorism consists in the use of “systematically unsystematic” violence (whether directed at combatants or noncombatants), and that the random or indiscriminate character of terroristic violence points us in the direction of seeing what is distinctively wrong with it. The fundamental problem is that terrorism is not committed to any rules of armed conflict or any principles that would facilitate the eventual containment or termination of the conflict.
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