The definition of the term “terrorism” is highly subjective depending on the political party or
ideological group that is defining it. The well-known slogan "One man’s terrorist is another man’s
freedom fighter” highlights the subjectiveness of the term. From an international criminal law perspective,
Dr Ben Saul has noted that the term “currently
lacks the precision, objectivity and certainty demanded by legal discourse”3.
The political connotations of the term also make it difficult for it to be admitted
into international law.
Furthermore, criminal law needs to be able to clearly express condemnation of the crime and to stigmatise the perpetrators. But does the label “terrorism” have sufficient capacity to stigmatise the crime? From the perspective of the terrorist organisation and their sympathisers, the term “terrorism” is synonymous with terms such as “freedom fighters” or “jihadists”. This together with the conflicting and subjective definitions around the term “terrorism”, one can conclude that the term would be ineffective in stigmatising the crime. This is in stark contrast to the clear stigmatisation that is associated with other crime labels such as rape, child molestation, murder, manslaughter…etc.
Instead of stigmatising the crime, many believe the term “terrorism” in fact glorifies the crime! Osama Bin Laden has said “The terrorism we practice is of the most commendable kind for it is directed at tyrants…”. ISIS have openly created online resources that encourage “terrorism” - proudly using that same term. Dr Scott Smith has noted "The word 'terror' implies power and the word 'terrorist' grants undeserved status and identity"9. It seems the term in itself has now become part of the propaganda of terrorist organisations!
It is clear that what is needed is a better term that can be used to objectively categorise this horrendous crime without any political bias, and without any doubt in terms of its capacity to stigmatise the crime...
What is the true nature of the crime which we currently refer to as “terrorism”? Is it not the cowardly act of killing/injuring innocent and unarmed civilians – including children? Let's take a closer look at the meaning behind the word “cowardly”. The English Oxford dictionary defines “cowardly” as:
Based on that definition, we propose the introduction of 2 new words into our vocabulary which we believe are better alternatives to “terrorism” and “terrorist”:
Note 1: The term “cowardly” is used here to signify that it is a deliberate attack on unarmed civilians or
non-combatants – those who are unable to retaliate or defend themselves. It is also “cowardly” in the sense that
the perpetrator is avoiding direct military engagement - and choosing to attack soft targets instead.
Note 2: The above terms do not imply that the attacker is a coward. In fact, they may well consider themselves to be very brave individuals who have a deep commitment to their cause. However, they have chosen the cowardly tactic of attacking soft targets such as unarmed civilians, children, babies…etc while avoiding military engagement. Hence the labels of "cowardism" and "cowardist" would perfectly fit the crime and the criminal.
Note 3: This definition doesn't stipulate any particular type of “coercion”. That is, it applies for all types of coercion whether it be political, religious, ideological driven, self-determination driven...etc. Any cowardly attack to kill or maim civilians is to be regarded as unjustified no matter what the cause. If a self-determination, rebellion or a revolutionary movement has to resort to cowardism, that movement is not only illegitimate, it is also in violation of humanitarian law (which explicitly condones the killing or injuring of civilians)!
Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur believes the term “terrorism” needs to be replaced: “The term terrorism has come to encompass such wide varieties of violent acts that it should be replaced by another term”4. Not only is it a disputed term, it also does not have the capacity to sufficiently stigmatise the crime or to express the public's disgust of the cowardly attack on unarmed civilians. In fact, we’d argue that it glorifies the crime!
We are advocating the use of the term “Cowardism” to be used instead of “Terrorism” – In fact, we believe that it is not possible for us to win the war against terrorism until we have such a change in our vocabulary! Clear arguments in favour of this change:
Trillions have been spent on counterterrorism efforts around the globe. However, instead of a decline in terrorism incidents, we are seeing a significant increase in the frequency of such attacks! Obviously our current global strategies against terrorism are not effective...
It is now time for a new approach! We believe redefining our terrorism laws through the use of the new term of "cowardism" is the key. Once the term of "cowardism" is admitted into international criminal law, it will enter into the vocabulary used by the media and the general public. This will then passively drive the deterrence of terrorist attacks at a global scale!
We are urging United Nations to consider the term "cowardism" as a new way of defining and criminalising acts of terrorism.
We believe it is time we abandon this futile exercise in defining "terrorism" and look towards a better solution!
We want the UN to adopt the new term "cowardism" as a base for defining and criminalising terrorism:
The term “cowardly” is used here to signify that it is a deliberate attack on unarmed civilians or non-combatants – those who are unable to retaliate or defend themselves. It is also “cowardly” in the sense that the perpetrator is avoiding direct military engagement - and choosing to attack soft targets instead.
It is well known that terrorists seek publicity through their acts of violence5. Coincidentally, a symbiotic relationship can often be observed between media and terrorist organisations6. As Prof Taha Najem has pointed out "The broader and more prolonged the media coverage of terrorism turns out to be, the greater the terrorists' feelings of accomplishment, influence, and power".
We believe the use of the term “cowardism” will break this symbiotic relationship while still enabling the media and journalists to continue their important work of reporting the crime. We can guarantee a newspaper that reports on a terrorist attack as a “cowardist attack” will not be used as a recruitment poster by these terrorist organisations!
If the UN is able to adopt the term "cowardism", the media agencies around the globe will inevitably begin to refer to terrorism using that new term. This will then drive the adoption of terms such as “cowardism”, “cowardist attack” or “cowardist bomber” at a global scale! The impact of this on terrorist organisations is obvious: they will find it harder and harder to find inspiration for these attacks! They will then gradually see the benefit in abandoning their cowardly tactics and to seek resolution through legitimate political engagement.
We are hoping to drive the use of new words “cowardism” and “cowardist” through social media - to get people talking about these new words, using them in conversation, and openly discussing why we need this change in vocabulary...etc. We need your assistance with the following:
The term of "cowardist" is not attempting to describe the state of the mind of the terrorist - it is simply a recognition that the crime is a cowardly act of killing or maiming unarmed civilians, children, babies...etc. Yes, that attacker might believe he/she is very courageous. Or might be brainwashed or operating under the influence of drugs that induce “chemical courage” (which is by the way, common among ISIS terrorists7). But we are looking beyond the state of the mind of the attacker. That is, irrespective of whether the attacker is brave or a coward, the end result is a cowardly attack on non-combatants without giving them any opportunity to defend themselves. Hence the term "cowardist" perfectly defines the criminal.
We believe using the correct vocabulary is the first step in addressing the global scourge that is cowardism. As per the saying "pen is mightier than the sword", we can use our words to passively combat cowardism at a global scale. We believe referring to the crime without any glorification of the crime is paramount in deterring this horrendous crime. When such attacks are referred to as "cowardist attacks", it is obvious that it there will be minimal chance of it being a source of inspiration for future would-be terrorists.
As the term "terrorism" is highly subjective, it's level of pejorativeness is also subjective to say the least! In fact, some would argue that it glorifies the crime. Dr Scott Smith has noted "The word 'terror' implies power and the word 'terrorist' grants undeserved status and identity…It seems that these terms unintentionally project a strength and a purpose that is not accurate or fitting for the cowardly acts they perform9".
The term "cowardism" is significantly more pejorative than "terrorism". Referring to ISIS as a "cowardist organisation" would be considered as more stigmatising than labelling it as a "terrorist organisation". As one of the functions of criminal law is to stigmatise the crime, it is important that we use a term that is unambiguous in its capacity to stigmatise the crime.
We are proposing a better term to label the crime that we know today as "terrorism". The term of "cowardism" is a clear acknowledgement of the fact that the perpetrator is using the cowardly tactic of killing and maiming unarmed civilians, children…etc while avoiding direct military engagement. This cowardly nature of the attack is currently not part of the semantics and symbolism of the term "terrorism". This has led to misleading interpretations of the term "terrorism", even to the extent where it is seen as an courageous attempt by the perpetrator to bring about justice. Though the individual might be very courageous, more and more people are now seeing past this disguise of "courage" which is cleverly designed to mask the underlying cowardice nature of the attack. And it is no coincidence that more and more people are using the term "cowardly attack" to describe such terrorist attacks.
The term "cowardism" is a better term to refer to the crime - and it goes beyond the simple "rebranding" of the crime:
Let’s face it – The UN has been trying for more than 20 years to reach consensus on the definition and it has failed. As Prof Alex Schmid would put it: “In terrorism studies, there is a certain ‘definition fatigue.’” 8. What better way to get past this definition fatigue than by using a new term altogether? This would not only enable us to get past the existing array of confusing definitions but to also get us thinking about terrorism through an entirely new perspective. As it stands, our options are: Either give up attempting to define terrorism altogether or base that definition using the new word of "cowardism" - which is not only less subjective, but also politically unbiased
Our approach does not actively target marginalised communities. It is a more passive approach of combating terrorism. Just having the new term propagate through media and enter into the common vernacular is sufficient. Our approach does not call for any "active" preventative actions such as surveillance, de-radicalisation, early intervention programmes…etc.
Yes, they may believe their acts of terror is legitimate resistance. But despite their belief, no humanitarian law would consider killing or maiming of civilians as legitimate. There is no law that would ever condone such cowardist acts, no matter what the reason is behind their resistance movement. If anything, it is a bully tactic that always backfires - and hinders genuine attempts at peace by thwarting any chance of legitimate political engagement.
The term "cowardist" would certainly be seen as bias language against the perpetrator. This is nothing new, criminal law already uses bias language when it convicts a criminal under labels such as "rape", "manslaughter", "cyberbullying", "aggravated assault", "child molestation"…etc. How is "cowardism" any different? Terrorism being one of the most heinous of all crimes, we have every reason to use clear bias language to stigmatise the crime. And none better than the term "cowardism"!
Power imbalances, socio-economic and political causes will always exist in society. While it is important to address these issues by empowering these marginalised communities, we have to accept that we will never have the utopian society where every member of the community is equally supported and empowered. Even with our best efforts, there will always be some in the community that feel disempowered or affected by injustice. That does not give them the right to kill and maim civilians. Instead, they need to be able to express their dissatisfaction through legitimate means. Cowardly attacking the society will only further marginalise them. Hence, we need to remove "terrorism" as one of their available options - through clear deterrence and stigmatisation of that option. Then they will be more likely to explore various non-violent means of expressing dissent. Of course, we need to do more to open up avenues where they can express their political critique and discontent. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) has done some great work in this area. See article
This is true - they'd prefer to refer to themselves as "freedom fighters" instead of "terrorists". But they do not object when media refers to their attacks as "terrorist attacks". In fact, they would happily accept this free publicity to further their agenda. However, that publicity will turn into negative publicity for them once the media adopts the term "cowardism". Which of these media headlines would ISIS prefer: "ISIS has claimed responsibility for yesterday's terrorist attack" or "ISIS has claimed responsibility for yesterday's cowardist attack"?
Many in the media are already aware of the shortcomings in using the term "terrorism" - not only in terms of its political bias and subjectiveness, but also in the irrational response that term often generates among the public. The biggest shortcomings with the term "terrorism" however, is that it lacks the symbolism to convey the cowardly nature of the attack. In the absense of an alternative, the public currently has no option but to use the term "terrorism" when referring to this crime. Nonetheless, more and more people have been using the term "cowardly attack" to describe such terrorist attacks.
What we are proposing is a better term that objectively conveys the event - and clearly stigmatises the crime at the same time. The term also better conveys the public's disgust of the crime! More importantly, the label of "cowardism" will deter the crime, and enable us to passively combat terrorism!
Not at all. Once the would-be attacker has been effectively deterred from carrying out cowardist attacks, there is a higher chance that this individual will seek other means of conflict resolution - this could be through legitimate political engagement, protests or other means of expressing dissent through non-violent means. Not only would such action put the spotlight on the underlying issues, it would also generate far more sympathy to their cause than what terrorism could ever have achieved!
Power imbalances, socio-economic and political causes exists in every society. However, terrorism is not the answer in resolving any of those underlying causes. Hence the rejection of terrorism would inevitably lead to the opening up of other avenues for these individuals to express their discontent and plight. This will in turn lead to more stable societies that are able to better acknowledge and address these underlying causes.
Yes, terrorists may attempt to instil fear in the wider community by attacking a few individuals. Regardless of what higher ambitions a terrorist may have had, he or she nonetheless aims to achieve them through the cowardly act of attacking civilians - with no opportunity given to them to defend themselves - a cowardly tactic in every sense of the word. It is time we give more emphasis to the cowardly nature of the attack when we label this heinous crime. The term "terrorism" lacks the symbolism to acknowledge this cowardly nature of the attack. The term "cowardism" on the other hand makes it impossible to disguise the cowardice nature of the crime.
We are a non-profit organisation that was established on 24th of April 2019 - just couple of days after Sri Lanka was cowardly attacked on Easter Sunday. We are Sri Lankans but we are also citizens of the world - we dream of the day when the world has stamped out the scourge that is cowardism! We believe this is within everyone's reach - and within our generation!
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