Generally speaking, this term is an uncontroversial reference to violence outside the boundaries of law and rules of warfare, aimed primarily at civilians, for the purpose of terrorizing people into submission or concessions. Thus the term means exactly what it says: the use of terror itself as a means of pursuing goals. Across different countries and times, however, the word has also been used by States trying to vilify dissenting voices (by labeling them as “terrorist”) - and rally people to a violent suppression of the same.

While the term made its first appearance during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in 1790s France, terrorism has been applied in recent times mainly to Middle Eastern groups that use violent tactics (or the threat thereof) to inspire fear and anxiety. In nearly all cases, a group’s opponents use the term terrorist to describe (and sometimes demonize) the group, while its supporters refer to the group’s soldiers or volunteers as freedom fighters or holy warriors, or some other term with a positive connotation. Rarely has any terrorist group ever used the word to describe themselves. Many have objected to use of the word terrorist to refer almost exclusively to terrorism perpetrated by people of Middle Eastern origin, as opposed to, say, white supremacist groups, or actions by the United States and its allies which some believe to fall within the definition of terrorism.

Similarly, controversy exists around naming certain far-right armed groups in the United States terrorists (in the liberal view) versus “freedom fighters”  or “defenders of the constitution” (in the far-right view). Many in the various civil rights movements have also pointed out that traditionally disempowered groups (African-Americans, LGBTQ folks, Native Americans, immigrants) experience as a form of terrorism the violence aimed at them (by both State and non-State actors) and at their attempts to fight for equality and power. Some in the various ecological justice and animal rights movements have been accused of terrorism, even when no human beings have actually been targeted, in part because attacks on property are perceived to be a threat to the security of society in general.


-What makes someone a terrorist? What makes someone a freedom fighter? What is the difference, from your point of view? What do other people around you say?

-Do you believe the use of terror as a means to pursue a goal is ever justified? If so, under what conditions is it justified?

-Can you imagine a situation in which you could act in a way that would cause other people to call you a terrorist? If people called you such a thing unjustly, what would you do about it?

-How should the U.S. government, or governments in general, deal with people accused of terrorism? Should such a crime be treated differently than other crimes?