By Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic
Reviewed by Curtis Jones
The term “terrorism” has been widely but imprecisely used. A striking example is Michael Shermer’s article, “Five Myths of Terrorism,” in the August 2013 Scientific American. It purports to identify those myths without defining the term “terrorism.”
The definition in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition (“terrorism: the use of violence … for political goals”) is so broad that it has to include any goal-oriented military or paramilitary action, such as war or rebellion, whereas the American media conventionally limit their use of the term to less extensive forms of violence.
The root of the word calls for an overly specific definition: “terrorism: use of admonitory violence to intimidate a target group into changing a policy.” The media apply the term to a wider range of actions–for example, assassinations, which may be intended, not for intimidation, but for revenge, or for eliminating a leading practitioner of a given policy.
The most accurate definition of “terrorism,” as the term is generally used, is “illegal political violence.” This definition is meticulously avoided by spokespersons for governments that resort to such action–such as the United States.
Shermer sets up his five “myths,” and then shoots them down. His analysis is provocative, but briefer and more facile than the subject deserves. At least two of his judgments demand more rigorous examination:
1 – Deaths from terrorism are “statistically invisible” when compared with homicides in all categories. This is comparing apples with oranges. The death toll of 3,000 Americans on 9/11/2001 was politically visible enough to trap the United States into invading two countries.
2 – Shermer concludes that “terrorism” rarely works. The statistical approach to the question of how many “terrorist campaigns” achieve their goals is also unsatisfactory. The goals of many subversive actions are not explicit–leaving inference as our only clue. We have to infer that a central goal of the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 was the withdrawal of the Marines from Lebanon–which in fact happened, though a few months later, after the political dust had settled.