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What is a Terrorist?

Amy Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Terrorist. It's a word that sends chills up the spines of most people. The term is pejorative. It is an insult of the highest degree. Calling someone's actions "terrorism" and the person a terrorist by extension, is as serious a charge that can be laid against someone in this day and age. It has the same connotation as "child molester" or "baby killer." A terrorist has done something that offends the conscience and whose intent is to terrorize, frighten, harass and otherwise molest innocent people.

The intent is usually key to calling someone a terrorist. A murderer certainly strikes fear into the hearts of his or her victims -- a serial killer may inflict these acts with the intent of causing fear and terror. However, serial killers do their horrible acts for selfish gratification. Almost without exception, a terrorist feels that he or she is working for some higher aim. Many people associate terrorists almost exclusively with religious fanaticism, but this is not an accurate picture. Terrorists do what they do from motivation which may be religious, political, a mix of the two, or neither. They may be environmental extremists, or motivated by extreme devotion to animal rights.

One of the perplexing things about a terrorist is that many people would agree with many of their aims in principle. Most people want religious freedom, honesty in politics, environmental accountability, ethical treatment for animals. All are laudable goals -- until innocent people are terrorized in the process of promoting the agenda.

Of course, to Americans, the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001, is the most visible definition of terrorism and what a terrorist is. However, in Northern Ireland, the scars from years of terrorism by the IRA and the Protestant paramilitary branches are still visible. What of the 2005 attack on the London Underground? Or decades of terrorist actions on both sides of the conflict in Israel and Palestine? Regardless of the cause, when that cause becomes violent, it is terrorism and its participants are terrorists. They strongly feel the ends justify their means.

A terrorist may be perfectly sincere in his or her beliefs. He or she may be convinced of the rightness of their actions. However, modern humanity agrees that actions calculated to produce terror, simply to make a point or further an agenda, constitute terrorism. A terrorist often does not think of himself as such. He may call himself a rebel, a freedom-fighter, a soldier of justice, etc. She might even be insulted that someone would think of her as a terrorist. But if he or she deliberately engages in actions designed to harm or kill innocent people, that destroy property, that rob blameless people of their right to a peaceful everyday existence, that person is a terrorist.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at PublicPeople. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.

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Discussion Comments
By anon186334 — On Jun 14, 2011

Terror, terrorist, terrorism. In reality, it is just another hateful word.

It depends on how much hate the user wants to spread.

Terror is the maximum fear that a human can bring to bear on another.

Terror, terrorist, terrorism, is in fact, insufficient or untruthful information given to the one referred to as the attacker or terrorist, in order to create a rage that pushes that person beyond all reason.

Newton's third law states that forces occur in pairs. One is called the action and the other the reaction. Both forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction.

So, you have the powerful attempting to own more and more, and the poor attempting to hold what they have.

Question: A smart bomb from 30, 40 or 50 thousand feet, or

a human bomb fighting toe to toe for survival of land and family.

Who is the terrorist? The provoker or the provoked?

To bring about outside order, there must be order within.

By anon173464 — On May 07, 2011

it is good that others see beyond the smoke screens.

we in the western world are also guilty of terrorist acts.

By cougars — On Dec 11, 2010

@ Babalaas- You make an interesting point about what breeds American extremism, but I would like to comment on the reasons behind not labeling it terrorism. The shooting of a museum guard outside of the Holocaust Museum, the two dragging deaths of African Americans behind trucks this year alone, and the attempted dirty bombing of top Obama aides by Neo Nazi fanatics are perfect examples of domestic terrorism.

Those acts incite fear and anger in the hearts of entire communities, much the same as a terrorist bombing. These are not considered acts of terror though; rather they are considered hate crimes. The rhetoric changes, but the gravity of the crime remains unchanged. I believe the only reason that these crimes are not considered acts of terrorism is because they would bring Americans down to the same level as our "enemy". It is hard to fight a foreign extremist when, as a nation, we can look in the mirror and see that we perpetrate some of the same injustices against our own people.

By Babalaas — On Dec 10, 2010

I have wondered in this debate over security and extremism whether the most dangerous "terrorist" threat is a domestic terrorist or foreign terrorist. I think Americans definitely live in fear that foreign terrorists will cause harm to this country again, but I have a different opinion. In my opinion, the most dangerous terrorist is a homegrown terrorist. Disillusioned members of our own society, suffering from the effects of an ever-widening wealth gap and social stratification are losing hope that this country and its government are working to protect them.

The American Dream is slipping away for many people, and it is breeding extremism. American citizens have committed some of the last acts of terrorism and attempted terrorism to make the news. The Anthrax mailer, the attempted Brooklyn bomb attack, even the killing of abortion Dr. Chiller. To me, acts like these work to intimidate Americans and degrade democracy, but they are rarely reported as terrorist acts.

By anon46023 — On Sep 22, 2009

This is to inform you that terrorists can commit the most horrible, extremely devilish crimes against human beings. These KKK can charm a bird out of a tree.

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at PublicPeople....
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