What is terrorism?

The Boston Marathon bombing once again has Americans asking, “Is this terrorism?” And more broadly, “What is terrorism?”

We asked ourselves those questions the moment we heard the news. Our news anchors asked for the next 24 hours (though they were clear to say at first that they did not know if it was terrorism). President Obama – thankfully – was careful not to use the word in his first press conference on the day of the bombings. But later on the following day – on Tuesday – Obama said, “Any time bombs are used to target civilians, it is an act of terrorism.”

What does it mean when we say something is “terrorism” and why does it matter?

As a professor of Sociology and Law, I study how ordinary people understand the law and how the law itself, including law’s categories and terms affect how people understand the world around them.

Using terms like “terrorism” shapes what ordinary people expect of the police, the justice system and our government. It affects what kind of punishment we want and the level of fear we feel about what is going on around us.

But what is terrorism? The most obvious definition is that terrorism is a crime meant to terrorise. We know what these kinds of crimes are: they are the kind that make us afraid to send our children to school, like Columbine; make us afraid to go to work, like 9/11; or make us afraid even just to spend beautiful spring day competing with our friends competing in a footrace.

Laura Beth Nielsen

Al Jazeera, Qatar

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