Thinking about September 11

Defining Terrorism and Terrorists

In the aftermath of September 11, most of the world saw the attackers and the attacks for what they were: terrorists and terrorism. But in some quarters there was less clarity. Notably, the Reuters News Agency asked its reporters to avoid both words, arguing, in part, that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." This notion—that distinctions can't or shouldn't be made between terrorists and freedom fighters—also found its way into several teaching guides.

Political scientist Walter Berns commented on these teaching guides in the Spring 2002 American Educator with this: "Of course we want students to be familiar with the perspective that drives our adversaries. But we also want students—and citizens—who can make judgments about the worthiness of various regimes and the ideas that animate them, who can make distinctions between freedom fighters and terrorists based on the methods used and the ends that are being fought for...."

In this American Educator, the last to be published before September 11, a leading scholar of ethics and politics walks us through these distinctions and reminds us of the importance of clear-thinking and clear language.


As I pen these words, September 11 is a year behind us. By the time this appears in print, the second anniversary of the attacks will be approaching. Other events may have crowded out our memories of that horrible day in 2001, and the waters may have started to close over. Some of us may be forgetting what it was really like. We shouldn't. It was just as bad as we remember it. Our emotions at the time were not extreme: They were appropriate to the horror. Anger remains an appropriate feeling.

An image that crowds out many others in my mind is that of tens of thousands fleeing New York City by foot. As I watched and wept, I recalled something I had said many times in my classes on war: "Americans don't have living memories of what it means to flee a city in flames. Americans have not been horrified by refugees fleeing burning cities." No more. Now we know.

What Happened on September 11?

Many recall a memorable line associated with Sergeant Joe Friday of the classic television series Dragnet. At some point in his interrogation of a witness or a suspect, the stony-faced Friday would stare the person in the eye and intone flatly: "Only the facts, ma'am," or, "Just give us the facts, sir." There is no substitute for the facts. If we get our descriptions of events wrong, our analyses and our ethics will be wrong, too. The words we use and our evaluations of events are imbedded with important moral principles. Even though ethicists and moral philosophers engage in heated debates about this and related matters, most of us intuitively understand what is at stake. When Pope John Paul II described the attacks of September 11 as an "unspeakable horror," we nodded our heads: Yes, that seemed right.

Those attacks would have been an "unspeakable horror" whether they happened in New York City or Moscow or Tokyo or Delhi or Karachi or Riyadh. But they happened here, and we bear a special burden to pay attention and get the facts about them right. Our depiction of the event carries our moral evaluation of it. "Unspeakable horror" is not a neutral description of September 11. The pontiff's words convey the ghastly, almost unimaginable viciousness of the perpetrators and the miserable fruits of their labor.

By contrast, the ideological fanatic who sees the events of September 11 as a "glorious deed" begins by misdescribing what happened. His words aim to draw our attention away from the desperate office workers plunging like birds with broken wings to their deaths, trying to escape a more horrible death by fire or from buildings imploding and shattering thousands of human beings into minute bits of rubble and dust. The fanatic does not represent the innocent civilians as what they were on September 11: workers from more than 86 countries doing their jobs in the World Trade Center towers and at the Pentagon, four planeloads of businesspeople and retirees, children and grandparents, traveling coast to coast. Instead, he represents these civilians as "infidels" and delights in their destruction. He strips them of their status as noncombatants and denies them the protection against intentional targeting and assault afforded anyone of that status by the laws of war.

One description condemns an intentional attack using instruments of peaceful travel—commercial airliners—against buildings in which commerce was conducted and people worked to support their families, and the other revels in it. Labeling their victims—calling them "infidels," the Islamist term for non-Muslims or Muslims who do not share their hatred; "bacilli," a Nazi term for Jews; or "bourgeois reactionaries," a Communist term for any who opposed their violent revolution—is but one way in which some human beings strip others of their protected status as noncombatants or, even more radically, of their very humanness. Such rhetoric is endemic to terror that knows no limit and traffics in strategies of exculpation and denial. Islamist fanatics tell themselves that the infidel is a lower order of being and a menace, and they are doing a good deed by eliminating a threat to the purity of their faith and all the faithful.

How we describe the attack is closely related to how we speak about the attackers. How should we describe the hijackers? Were they martyrs to their faith, as some claim? A martyr is generally recognized as one who dies for his or her faith. Even if he kills himself in the process, however, a person who murders is not a martyr but a murderer. To glorify as martyrs those whose primary aim is to murder civilians because they deem the end glorious is to perpetuate a distorted view of the world. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the original definition of martyr as one who "voluntarily undergoes the penalty of death for refusing to renounce the Christian faith or any article of it." A martyr, it follows, is one who suffers death on "behalf of any religious or other belief or cause." Nowhere is a martyr defined as one who "tries to kill as many unarmed civilians as possible and, in the process, meets his or her own end."

Why should we accept a radical redefinition of an old and noble term? When we think of a martyr, we picture an unarmed individual who meets death bravely because he or she refuses to recant the faith. If we extend this idea of unearned suffering to encompass perpetrators of mass murder, we traffic in distortions of language that lead to contortions of moral meaning. Muslim scholars have pointed out that Islam looks upon suicide as an "unpardonable sin," not a glorious deed. As was true of the early Christians, an Islamic martyr is also a witness for the faith. But naming a martyr is the business of Allah, the scholar Amir Taheri reminds us, not of those "in pursuit of political goals.... Muslims who implicitly condone terror know they cannot smuggle a new concept into Islamic ethics." Taheri argues that "not a single reputable theologian anywhere" endorses the new trick word that has been added to the Islamic lexicon by those who are trying to get around restrictions against suicide bombing.1 In other words, those who describe suicide bombers and other mass murderers as "martyrs" knowingly get the description wrong in order to justify and glorify what cannot be justified and should not be glorified.

What Is a Terrorist?

This line of reasoning pertains directly to how we talk about terror and terrorists. Just as the words martyr and martyrdom are distorted, whether in the Western or the Islamic tradition, when applied not to those prepared to die as witnesses to their faith but instead to those who commit suicide while killing as many civilians as possible. So terrorist is twisted beyond recognition if it is used to designate anyone anywhere fighting for a cause.

Terrorists are those who kill people they consider their "objective enemy," no matter what those people may or may not have done. Terrorist and terrorism entered ordinary language to designate a specific phenomenon: killing directed against all ideological enemies indiscriminately and outside the context of a war between combatants. According to the logic of terrorism, enemies can legitimately be killed no matter what they are doing, where they are, or how old they are.

The word terror first entered the political vocabulary of the West during the French Revolution. Those who guillotined thousands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris were pleased to speak of revolutionary terror as a form of justice. Since the era of the French Revolution, a complex, subtle, and generally accepted international language has emerged to make critical distinctions between different kinds of violent acts. Combatants are distinguished from noncombatants. A massacre is different from a battle. An ambush is different from a firefight. When Americans look back with sadness and even shame at the Vietnam War, it is horrors like the My Lai massacre they have in mind. Those who called the slaughter of more than 400 unarmed men, women, and children a battle were regarded as having taken leave of their senses, perhaps because they were so determined to justify anything that Americans did in the Vietnam War that they had lost their moral moorings.2

A terrorist is one who sows terror. Terror subjects its victims or would-be victims to paralyzing fear. In the words of the political theorist Michael Walzer, terrorism's "purpose is to destroy the morale of a nation or a class, to undercut its solidarity; [terrorism's] method is the random murder of innocent people. Randomness is the crucial feature of terrorist activity. If one wishes fear to spread and intensify over time, it is not desirable to kill specific people identified in some particular way with a regime, a party, or a policy. Death must come by chance."3 Terrorism is "the random murder of innocent people." The reference is not to moral innocence, for none among us are innocent in that way, but to our inability to defend ourselves from murderous attacks as we go to work, take a trip, shop, or ride a bus. In other words, civilians are not combatants.

Making the Right Distinction

The designation of terrorism becomes contested because terrorists and their apologists would prefer not to be depicted accurately. It is important to distinguish between two cases here. In some hotly contested political situations, it may be in the interest of one side to try to label its opponents as "terrorists" rather than "combatants" or "soldiers" or "fighters." We must ask who such men (and women) are attacking. Do they target soldiers at outposts or in the field? Do they try to disable military equipment, killing soldiers in the process? As they carry out such operations, are they open to negotiation and diplomacy? If so, it seems reasonable to resist a blanket label of "terrorism" for what they are up to.

In a situation in which noncombatants are deliberately targeted and the murder of the maximum number of noncombatants is the explicit aim, using terms like "fighter" or "soldier" or "noble warrior" is not only beside the point but pernicious. Such language collapses the distance between those who plant bombs in cafés or fly civilian aircraft into office buildings and those who fight other combatants, taking the risks attendant upon military forms of fighting. There is a nihilistic edge to terrorism: It aims to destroy, most often in the service of wild and utopian goals that make no sense at all in the usual political ways.

The distinction between terrorism, domestic criminality, and what we might call "normal" or "legitimate" war is vital to observe. It helps us to assess what is happening when force is used. This distinction, marked in historic, moral, and political discourses about war and in the norms of international law, seems lost on those who call the attacks of September 11 acts of "mass murder" rather than terrorism and an act of war under international law.

It is thus both strange and disheartening to read the words of those distinction-obliterators for whom, crudely, a dead body is a dead body and never mind how it got that way. Many of these same individuals would, of course, protest vehemently, and correctly, were commentators, critics, and political actors to fail to distinguish between the great world religion that is Islam and the terrorists who perpetrated the events of September 11. One cannot have it both ways, however, by insisting on the distinctions one likes and heaping scorn on those who put pressure on one's own ideological and political commitments.

If we could not distinguish between a death resulting from a car accident and an intentional murder, our criminal justice system would fall apart. And if we cannot distinguish the killing of combatants from the intended targeting of peaceable civilians and the deliberate and indiscriminate sowing of terror among civilians, we live in a world of moral nihilism. In such a world, everything reduces to the same shade of gray and we cannot make distinctions that help us take our political and moral bearings. The victims of September 11 deserve more from us.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and author of over 200 works on feminist theory, family, theology, and international relations. This article is excerpted with permission from Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, Basic Books, New York, 2003.


1. Taheri, A. (2002). "Semantics of Murder," Wall Street Journal, May 8, p. A18.

2. It would only be fair to point out that the Vietnam War was a terrible one in part because it was often difficult to distinguish combatants from noncombatants (although one is obliged to try), and because noncombatants often harbored combatants who lay in wait to ambush American soldiers. The soldiers at My Lai were inflamed, having just lost comrades. But none of that exculpates or justifies what happened. Massacre it was. Anyone who claimed a glorious victory over these villages and belittled their suffering would rightly be regarded as morally reprehensible.

3. Walzer, M. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books, p. 197.

American Educator, Summer 2003