An intelligent unbiased observer from another galaxy wants to understand the notion of a 'terrorist' because the alien sees:

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”

Is there an authoritative definition of terrorism that would enable a set of unbiased observers arrive at consistent labeling of terrorism and freedom fighters?

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it deals with concepts of "unbiased observers" and definitions of politically charged terms terms and is better asked at philosophy.stackexchange.com or politics.stackexchange.com Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 19:30
  • What makes you think an alien would be an unbiased observer? They would judge based on their own culture, which may consider democracy to be unethical etc.
    – user28517
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 20:56
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    @Moo There is no reason to believe that a given alien is or is not biased. However, the bespoke hypothetical alien is unbiased for this discussion and is a given to facilitate the discussion
    – gatorback
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 21:00
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    – stackzebra
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 9:28
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    The quote in the question is not a universal law, nor is it an axiom. It's just a quote. The two terms are not mutually exclusive. A freedom fighter might be a terrorist if he deliberately targets civilians in a showy way, or might not be if he only attacks legitimate military targets. Even the USA, which is often accused of labeling its enemies as "terrorists", uses the terms "militant" or "insurgent" for those who attack US military bases.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 11:07

3 Answers 3


There is a definition

Or rather, there are as many definitions as there are jurisdictions who have passed laws about them.

In , a terrorist is a person who commits a terrorist act.

A terrorist act is an act, or a threat to act, that meets both these criteria:

  • it intends to coerce or influence the public or any government by intimidation to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.

  • it causes one or more of the following:

◦ death, serious harm or danger to a person

◦ serious damage to property

◦ a serious risk to the health of safety of the public

◦ serious interference with, disruption to, or destruction of critical infrastructure such as a telecommunications or electricity network.

Advocating, protesting, dissenting or taking industrial action are not terrorist acts where the person doing the activity does not intend to cause serious harm to a person or create a serious risk to public safety.

If the Crown accuses someone of being a terrorist then they have to convince, beyond reasonable doubt, a set of unbiased observers (a jury) that they did these things.

“Freedom fighter” is not a term defined in Australian law so it would take on its normal meaning as someone who fights or otherwise struggles for “freedom” - a word that is so broad and subjective that it would be context dependent. Fighting could range from peaceful protest to armed insurrection. The hypothetical “freedom fighter” might or might not engage in “terrorist acts” so the terms “freedom fighter” and “terrorist” are not mutually exclusive.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dale M
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 22:43

The word "terrorist" (or "terrorism") is like any other word of the English language, which means that the notion of an "authoritative" definition is a bit sketchy. One finds definitions in dictionaries, and I suppose an authoritative definition is found in an authoritative dictionary. Your desideratum of an authoritative source precludes using Urbandictionary. Since there is no one official dictionary of English, you would have to go for one of the most respected dictionaries: The Oxford English Dictionary, or Merriam Webster's Third New International dictionary. It would in fact be best to provide both, since this could reveal differences in sources (and what they have in common).

Another approach would be to gather together statutory definitions. This is generally in inferior approach, because it does not correctly say how the word "terrorism" is defined, but if you were explaining to an alien lawyer how we statutorily define "terrorism", then of course you want to point to specific statutes. There are enough Anglophone countries that a comparative study could be interesting. It really depends on why you want to "define" terrorism/t.

At the US federal level, "international terrorism" is given a definition, applicable to Title 18. A seeming peculiarity is that the act must

occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum

The reason for this is that, unlike many countries, there are federal and state levels of law-making, and under the US Constitution they are supposed to have distinct subject matters (hence regular robbery is not a federal crime). The aliens would have to understand this feature of US law, in order to understand the otherwise "incorrect" clause in the Title 18 definition. There is a different definition of terrorism under Title 22, pertaining to the obligation of the Sec'y of State to report on terrorism, which is

premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents

and "international terrorism" is "terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than 1 country". For purposes of the Attorney General, the Code of Federal Regulations semi-defines terrorism by saying that

Terrorism includes the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives

(Other things could be considered "terrorism", so this is an "at least" definition).

  • @use6726 The reason to define terrorism is to enable the unbiased observer / student to craft a 'bright-line' between terrorist and freedom fighter. Ideally there would be a significant 'gulf' between then two.
    – gatorback
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 21:17
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    @gatorback : No. The unbiased observer is needed to decide whether someone is a freedom fighter or not. To decide whether someone is a terrorist or not, is much less subjective. For example, a freedom fighter might also be a terrorist if he deliberately targets civilians in a showy way, or might not be if he only attacks legitimate military targets. It's not a line where "terrorist" is on one end, and "freedom fighter" on the other end.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 11:09

Even though we're on Law.SE, I would not look in law books for definitions of such terms. So,

Is there an authoritative definition of terrorism that would enable a set of unbiased observers arrive at consistent labeling of terrorism and freedom fighters?

Well, with a caveat regarding the authoritativeness of dictionaries and the fluidity and context-sensitivity of language, I'd say "yes, but many people don't like it".

From Dictionary.com:

terrorism [ ter-uh-riz-uh m ]

  1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.
  2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
  3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

Definitions (2.) and (3.) are derivatives of (1.), so (1.) is your basic definition.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

ter·​ror·​ism | \ ˈter-ər-ˌi-zəm

  1. the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

and for "terror", we have (ommitting irrelevant definitions):

terror, noun

  1. a state of intense or overwhelming fear
  2. violence or the threat of violence used as a weapon of intimidation or coercion
  3. a very frightening or terrifying aspect

The reason many people won't like it is that it's quite broad. As comments on other definitions indicate, it covers a lot of governmental activity, perhaps to the extent that most world states (including democracies) are ruled in part through terrorism.

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