Whose “Terrorism?”

A classroom activity enlists students in defining terrorism and then applying their definitions to world events.

By Bill Bigelow

Shortly after the horrific Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush announced these as acts of war, and proclaimed a “war on terrorism.” But what exactly was to be the target of this war? What precisely did the president mean by terrorism? Despite uttering the words terror, terrorist or terrorism 32 times in his Sept. 20 speech to the nation, he never once defined terrorism.

Teachers need to engage our students in a deep critical reading of terms – such as “terrorism,” “freedom,” “patriotism,” and “our way of life” – that evoke vivid images but can be used for ambiguous ends (see the sidebar accompanying this article for definitions of “terrorism”).


I wanted to design a lesson that would get students to surface the definitions of terrorism that they carry around – albeit most likely unconsciously. And I wanted them to apply their definitions to a number of episodes, historical and contemporary, that involved some kind of violence or destruction. I didn’t know for certain, but my hunch was that as students applied definitions consistently they might be able to call into question the “We’re Good/They’re Bad” dichotomies that have become even more pronounced on the political landscape.

I wrote up several “What is Terrorism?” scenarios, but instead of using the actual names of countries involved I substituted Country A, Country B, etc. Given the widespread conflation of patriotism with support for U.S. government policies, I had no confidence that students would be able to label an action taken by their government as “terrorism” unless I attached pseudonyms to each country.

In the following scenario I used the example of U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. Country A is the United States, B is Nicaragua, and the country next door is Honduras:

“The government of Country A is very unhappy with the government of Country B, whose leaders came to power in a revolution that threw out the former Country B dictator. Country A decides to do everything in its power to overthrow the new leaders of Country B. It begins funding a guerrilla army that attacks Country B from another country next door. Country A also builds army bases in the next door country and allows the guerrilla army to use its bases. Country A supplies almost all of the weapons and supplies of the guerrilla army fighting Country B. The guerrillas generally try to avoid fighting Country B’s army. Instead, they attack clinics, schools, cooperative farms. Sometimes they mine the roads. Many, many civilians are killed and maimed by the Country A-supported guerrillas. Consistently, the guerrillas raid Country B and then retreat into the country next door where Country A has military bases.”

Question: 1. Which, if any, of these activities should be considered “terrorism” according to your definition? 2. Who are the “terrorists”? 3. What more would you need to know to be more sure of your answer?

I knew that in such compressed scenarios lots of important details would be missing; hence, I included question number three to invite students to consider other details that might influence their decisions.

Other scenarios included Israeli soldiers taunting and shooting children in Palestinian refugee camps, with the assistance of U.S. military aid; Indian farmers burning Monsanto-supplied, genetically-modified cotton crops and threatening to destroy Monsanto offices; the 1998 U.S. cruise missile attack on Sudan’s main pharmaceutical plant; and sanctions against Iraq that according to the UN reports have killed as many as a half million children. (See article, page 21.) The full list of situations can be found at: www.rethinkingschools.org/sept11.


As I’m on leave this year, my colleague, Sandra Childs, invited me into her Franklin High School classroom to teach this lesson to her 11th grade Global Studies students. I began by asking students to write down their own personal definitions of terrorism, and to keep these questions in mind: Does terrorism need to involve the killing of many people or can it affect just one person? Can it involve simply the destruction of property, with no injuries? Can governments commit acts of terrorism, or is the term reserved only for people who operate outside of governments? Must terrorism involve the people of one country attacking citizens of another country? Does motive make a difference? Does terrorism need to be intentional?

Immediately following, I explained to students that, in preparation for an activity, I’d like them to get into small groups and read their individual definitions to one another to see if they could build a consensus definition of terrorism. They could choose an exemplary definition from one member or, if they preferred, cobble one together from their separate definitions.

Some groups quickly agreed upon definitions; others would have spent the entire 83-minute class if Sandra and I had let them. In most cases, the definitions were simple, but thoughtful. For example, “intentional acts that create terror, targeted towards a specific group, or innocent people. Not just directly, but indirectly.”

I distributed the “What is Terrorism?” scenarios to students, reviewed the instructions with them, and emphasized that all the scenarios were real. Their main task was to read each situation and to decide whether any of the actions described met their group’s definition of “terrorism.” I made sure they understood that Country A in one situation would not necessarily be the same Country A in the next situation, and gave them permission to approach the situations in whatever order they liked.

Watching students attempt to apply their definitions of terrorism, I was impressed by their eagerness to be consistent. As Sandra and I wandered from group to group, we heard students arguing over whether there was a distinction between oppression and terrorism. Most groups wanted more information on the motives of various actors. Some insisted that if a country supported terrorist acts in another country, then it too was a terrorist; others held that a supporting country could not be held fully responsible for the actions of the actual perpetrators – but if a country knew about terrorism enabled with its funds, and did nothing to prevent it, then it too could be considered guilty of terrorism.

Although this activity was far too involved to be neatly contained in an 83-minute class, by the end many students came to important insights. One student said, “Ever since they announced that we were going to have a war on terrorism I have wondered who or what a terrorist is. And … it’s suspicious that they still haven’t defined terrorism.” I asked students why they thought the U.S. government had failed to offer a clear definition of terrorism. One student said, “If you don’t have any boundaries, then anyone can be a terrorist.” Another said, “The U.S. government won’t define terrorism because they don’t want to be able to be considered terrorists.”

These comments echoed Eqbal Ahmad’s insight that countries that have no intention of being consistent will resist defining terms. As one student wrote after the activity: “I also realized how many terrorism acts the U.S. has committed. When our government doesn’t define terrorism, it makes me think that they just want a free shot to kill anyone they want.” Wrote another student: “Bush needs to define terrorism in front of our nation before he does anything else, and then he needs to stick with the definition, not bend it to suit the U.S.”

But then there was this student comment: “I, myself, am really tired of hearing about it. If I go to war, so what, I’ll fight for my country. What does this have to do with global studies?” And this young man: “I feel if we don’t get our revenge against these ‘terrorists’ it will diminish the trust of our nation towards our government.”

These remarks reminded me of being in the classroom during the fall of 1990, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the United States was assembling its military attack force. Many students resisted critical analysis, sensing that critique eroded the “patriotic” unity then building in the country – that appending a “not so fast” onto the flag-waving interrupted a sense of collective purpose that felt good to many of them. At least that was how I read some students’ resistance. During times of war, students may regard even the mildest critical examination of government policy as unpatriotic or even subversive. Nonetheless, I was impressed by how many students in Sandra’s classes appeared eager to question their government’s framing of key issues.

As we wrapped up in one class, Sandra asked a wonderful question: “What difference do you think it would make if students all over the country were having the discussion that we’re having today?”

There were two quick answers before the bell rang: “I’d feel a lot better about the U.S.,” and “I think we’d lose a lot of people who’d want to go fight for the country.”

My interpretation: The more students understand about the exercise of U.S. power in the world – both military and economic – the less likely they are to want to extend it.


After I’d used the “What is Terrorism?” situations with Sandra’s classes, I realized that, with the exception of sanctions, all of them were incidents of direct attacks on civilians or property. Did my examples narrow students’ consideration of “terrorism”?

In her article “Solidarity Against All Forms of Terrorism,” Indian environmentalist and scholar Vandana Shiva urges us to embrace a more expansive notion of terrorism. She asks us to consider “economic policies which push people into poverty and starvation as a form of terrorism,” such as International Monetary Fund/World Bank-mandated structural adjustment programs that force governments to cut food and medical programs, with the full knowledge of the misery this will engender. In India, Shiva writes:

50 million tribals who have been flooded out of their homes by dams over the past 4 decades were also victims of terrorism – they have faced the terror of technology and destructive development. . The whole world repeatedly watched the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, but the destruction of millions of sacred shrines and homes and farms by forces of injustice, greed, and globalization go unnoticed.

To help students consider whether some situations could be considered economic terrorism, I’ve added several new “What is Terrorism?” scenarios. One deals with deaths in southern Africa from AIDS, where, for instance, international banks have forced the Zambian government to pay annual debt service charges greater than spending on health and education combined and where, according to the United Nations, life expectancy will soon drop to 33 years, a level not seen in the Western world since medieval times. Another new scenario focuses on transnational corporations that knowingly pay wages that are insufficient to sustain life.


The U.S. government is ill-placed to lecture the world about terrorism, especially when it has never bothered to define it. Writing in the British daily The Guardian, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy offered the perspective of an individual who is on the receiving end of U.S. global power:

The Sept. 11 attacks were a monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong. The message may have been written by bin Laden (who knows?) and delivered by his couriers, but it could well have been signed by the ghosts of the victims of America’s old wars. The millions killed in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, the 17,500 killed when Israel – backed by the U.S. – invaded Lebanon in 1982, the 200,000 Iraqis killed in Operation Desert Storm, the thousands of Palestinians who have died fighting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And the millions who died, in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama, at the hands of all the terrorists, dictators and genocidists whom the American government supported, trained, bankrolled and supplied with arms. And this is far from being a comprehensive list.

It’s not our role as teachers to climb on our soapbox to rail about U.S. foreign policy. And yet without an honest examination of events like those listed by Roy, how can we expect students to maintain any critical perspective on the U.S. “war against terrorism”? Let’s clarify with students what precisely we mean by terrorism. And then let’s encourage students to apply this definition to U.S. conduct in the world.

Underlying this curricular demand for consistency is the basic democratic, indeed human, premise that the lives of people from one nation are not worth more than the lives of people from another. A Pakistani university student, Nabil Ahmed, expressed this sentiment to the Christian Science Monitor: “There is only one way for America to be a friend of Islam. And that is if they consider our lives to be as precious as their own.”

Bill Bigelow (bbpdx@aol.com) is Rethinking Schools Classroom Editor.

Winter 2001 / 2002