There is no regime that can be labelled a “terrorist state”

In this blog I read the article “The Word ‚Terrorism‘ is Used as Propaganda” which made me think about who should be named a terrorist and who shouldn’t. The main argument of that mentioned article is that it criticises the fact that

the word ‚terrorism‘ is used randomly and that even though two incidents can have the same components one will be called terrorism and the other will not.”

The author of that article bases this critique on the idea that

the word terrorism is used as propaganda tool to awake certain feelings and foremost fear in the readers and the main population. To create a we versus them. A we versus terrorists”.

Therefore, according to the article, violent actions of a state can give a state the label of being a “terrorist state”.

This critique made me think about what “terrorism” means and what it encompasses. Although the author mentions different definitions (there are hundreds of definitions for such a term, which can sometimes be contradicting as well), I profoundly disagree with its argument. Because when we use the word “terrorists” we always think about a group of people that murders citizens for political, or even religious purposes. This applies to the Islamic State in the Middle East, ETA in Spain or the IRA in Ireland. However, the author of the previous article said that drone strikes used by the United States in Pakistan are terrorist attacks, and therefore – following this logic – converts the United States into a “terrorist state”.

Nevertheless, for me, a state can never commit a terrorist attack.

This does not mean that I am legitimizing drone strikes or any unjustified violent actions that are undertaken by states. But when looking at the existing regime types, it is very clear what authoritarian, totalitarian or fascist regimes are. They, like many other violent political systems, impose and kill their own citizens to maintain their rule. But the regime typology of a “terrorist state” does not exist. The example of Syria shows this very clearly: The regime is profoundly totalitarian, and ISIS is a terrorist organization. Both act in the same land and in the same way, but both – despite murdering citizens from Syria – are labelled differently. And for me this differentiation is adequate.

Being aware that this is a controversial statement, it is essential for me to highlight that the motivation behind the violent action of a state and the one of a terrorist group is always different. A state that uses violence is mostly totalitarian and authoritarian, which means that it has established structures in order to execute these crimes. Their main motivation is generally that they want to keep their status quo and annihilate its opposition. In contrast, a terrorist group is never institutionalized in such a formal way like a state (although it might have an established structure), and that it always goes against a state. Following this logic, I would like to point out that to my mind, before 1933, the Nazis could be labelled as “terrorists”, whilst after taking power, this label did no longer apply to them. They made Germany a fascist and totalitarian state, but not a “terrorist state”. This same example could be used for many other regimes where a terrorist group gained power and their actions went from being “terrorist” to become “totalitarian”.

But I would like to highlight as well, that today those states that can be labelled as being “democratic” can take violent actions and often have an authoritarian foreign policy. This can be the case for military interventions of Western countries in the Middle East, where under the excuse of “stability” violence is used in an imperialistic way. But again, this is referred to the nature or attitude of a regime, as the regime typology of “terrorist state” does not exist (see here to see a list of the most common political regimes). Perhaps overshadowed by the fact that these Western leaders are elected democratically, their authoritarian foreign policy gains unjustified legitimacy.

Nevertheless, I am not saying that – especially more from the right wing media – protesters who have violent intentions can easily be labelled as “terrorists”. This happened in mid-march when in Frankfurt hundreds of people who were part of the “Blockupy movement” and who protested against the policies of the European Central Bank were labelled “terrorists”. The reason behind this was that some of the protesters (by far not all of them) were burning cars and bins (which I am not justifying either). In this case, using “terrorism” is wrong, as they were protesting in a violent way, but not killing. In this context, I agree with the author that that the label “terrorist” can be used as propaganda or to discredit a group or movement.

To conclude, I do believe that we have to realize when the word “terrorism” should be used. It should not be used to discredit protesters, nor to describe a totalitarian or authoritarian state. I therefore feel that it is very important to be very clear about the fact that we should always fight and identify terrorists as what they are: Non-institutionalized organizations who justify murdering with political, or religious motivations and who signify a danger for society.


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Eine Antwort zu There is no regime that can be labelled a “terrorist state”

  1. seinswandel schreibt:

    What is with warlords or what’s about the Islamic State. The IS is well organized and – I would say – an organisation which is institutionalized to a certain degree. According to some theory institutional rules are constitutive to any organisation. They rule a territory but it’s no state but it is more then „a group“.
    The argument that a state cannot be labbeled terrorist because it is a state sounds not so convincing for me. I would call a certain kind of violent action terrorism even if a state commit it. The very problem „identify terrorists as what they are“ is a problem of labelling. We cannot avoid that label some group as terrorist or authoritarian or whatever already is an political act. Terrorism is never an neutral scientific term but highly normativ.

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