Who Does the Media Call a Terrorist?

From Pixabay.

Terrorism is a topic that has long attracted the attention of political scientists, sociologists, and national security experts. One of the basic observations of the field is that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorists. This has lead to a long discussion about who, exactly, is labeled as terrorist. In Socius, the ASA’s open access journal, Schoon and Beck has a nice article where they look at over 500,000 print articles to see which organizations are called “terrorist.”

The answers – over time:

  1. Left groups are slightly more likely to be called terrorist over time.
  2. Groups that suicide bomb are more likely to be called terrorist over time.
  3. Islamist groups are more likely to be called terrorist over time.
  4. Groups that assisinate are less likely to be called terrorist over time (!).
  5. Groups that kidnap are less likely to be called terrorist over time (!).

Commentary: The message is clear – violence against civilians is not the big driver here. The issue is ideology and *sensational* violence. My take away is that ideology and atrocity are informing the label, not a more stable definition focusing on a more or less stable reprtoire. Traditionally, definitions of terrorism focus on things like using violence against civilians to obtain political goals or to intimadate them. Instead, the core of contemporary terrorism labeling seems to be ideology and only the most extreme forms of violence.

This leads to a larger question that many in this area have grappled with. To what degree is the application of the terrorism label a performative act that indicates that a moral or political boundary and not an attempt to harm civilians? Articles like this indicate that political processes often reflect moral boundary as well as genuine security issues. It’s important to remember that,


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