Terrorism Defined


Terror is a funny thing. Some people would say that terror is not funny at all, and that it’s—well, terrifying. And they would be right. But hear me out. I believe that if we examine the term closely, we have a greater chance of seeing it for what it is, and not letting it… terrify us.

If you look closely at the word ‘terror’, you will see that, by definition, it is fear: a heightened and intense fear.

According to my 1971 Oxford English Dictionary (the old-fashioned, paper edition),

Terror is:

“1. The state of being terrified, or greatly frightened; intense fear, fright, or dread.”…

2. The action or quality of causing dread; terrific quality, terribleness; also, concr. a thing or person that excites terror; something terrifying.

3. King of terrors, Death personified [biblical references]. …

4. Reign of terror, a state of things in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage; esp. in French Hist. the period of the First Revolution from about March 1793 to July 1794, also called the Terror, the Red Terror, when the ruling faction remorselessly shed the blood of persons of both sexes and of all ages and conditions whom they regarded as obnoxious.

Hence also White Terror, applied to the counter-revolution that followed the Red Terror, and to other periods of remorseless repression in other countries. …”

Terror, then, is a heightened, distilled fear that makes people go crazy and do crazy things. The Red Terror in France spawned the retaliatory White Terror, both of which caused people to live in fear and dread, and to commit acts of violencehate crimes—upon one another.

Terror is a great motivator; it is very compelling. A state of heightened emotion, it incites the same emotion in others, either to rally with the terrorists or against them, but in equal measure of passion, not of reason. No one is thinking calmly or rationally; adrenaline and the worst of our primal instincts take over.

I don’t think it can be argued that the ends, or acts, committed while in this heightened emotional state, this state of terror, can be viewed as reasonable or justified, or grounded in any kind of rational or humanitarian thought (for you have to understand that the perpetrators of violent, terrible acts are as terrified as are their victims).

“Terrorism” is defined in the same dictionary as:

“1. Government by intimidation as directed and carried out by the party in France during the Revolution of 1789-94; the system of the ‘Terror’ (1793-4) …

2. gen. A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized. …”

“Terrorist” is defined as follows:

“1. As a political term: a. applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution, esp. to those connected with the Revolutionary tribunals during the ‘Reign of Terror’.

b. Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation; spec. applied to one of the extreme revolutionary societies in Russia.

2. Dyslogistically: One who entertains, professes, or tries to awaken or spread a feeling of terror or alarm; an alarmist, a scaremonger.


Terror is a dangerous thing. Once you get caught up in it, it is hard to pull away. Like jealousy, hate, and lust, it is a strong emotion with a great capacity to absorb and entangle people. The best thing you can do is to maintain a calm, balanced, and rational outlook, and not to get caught up in the heat of the moment.

It is always a good idea to look calmly at the emotions, from within or without, that occupy our attention and vie for control over our lives.

It is also a good idea to go back to the source of terms we use every day, and re-examine their roots, their meanings and their connotations, in full.

How do you define “terrorism”? Has the definition changed over the years?

Source Cited:
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Vol. 1. Oxford UP, 1971. Print. 2 vols.