Gilsinan: Why do you think people are still arguing about the definition of terrorism?
Crenshaw: For one thing, it’s not an easy concept to define. It’s controversial, it’s contested, and people use it in a normative sense that, your enemies do terrorism and your friends are freedom fighters, et cetera. All these awful clichés. But there is that kind of bias, people are unwilling to just say, look, this is a form of violence, and lots of different types of people use it for lots of different types of purposes. It’s not a very nice form of violence, because it often targets civilians on purpose, and I think we’re always shocked when violence deliberately targets civilians. And then it’s just kind of hard empirically to get at what we mean by terrorism—violence that’s symbolic, violence that’s meant to communicate, to send a message—how, just objectively, do you distinguish that from any other sort of violence?
Gilsinan: It really does get to motivations.
Crenshaw: It’s about motivations, which you can’t know. All right, so you assassinate a president, and if you just killed him because you hated him, and you had a personal vendetta, how would we know the difference—say you were killed in the attempt—versus a person who assassinated the president in order to send a message to all American political figures? So usually terrorist attacks target somebody because they are symbolic of a larger class of people, there’s a meaning behind the choice of target, but how do you read that meaning? And different audiences will read that meaning in different ways. A policeman was killed—what does that tell you? If a group takes credit, and they say, “We killed that policeman because he is the agent of the oppressive state,” well, then you’ve got a clue. But what if they don’t say anything? Well, they could have killed him because he arrested their brother, we don’t know. So it’s just hard to get at it.
And, of course, academics love to quarrel about definitions.
Gilsinan: It seems like September 11 really changed the popular conception of what terrorism is.
Crenshaw: It struck a lot of people as just totally unusual and out of the blue, and it was, in so many ways. But yes, we’d had, maybe not a long history, but a history of terrorism that began in the late 1960s just in the United States. And it’s not a lot of it. Terrorism across the board is actually very rare [when] you compare it to, say, homicides, or many other leading causes of death. But it wasn’t unheard of, and it had happened here.
There was [terrorism] in Algeria in the 1950s, in Europe, we have, obviously, the IRA, we had the Italians [including left-wing terrorist groups like the Red Brigades], and the Germans [who had their own left-wing groups, including the Baader-Meinhof Gang], and ETA [Basque separatists in Spain]. You know, occasionally in past years, terrorism had made that kind of public impact, and particularly in Lebanon in the early 1980s in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks [and] at the U.S. embassy. So in the ’80s terrorism did make an impression on us in the United States. I think by the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War, [the] Oslo Accords [between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, under which the PLO renounced terrorism], I think maybe there was a general feeling that perhaps terrorism was subsiding.