The questions are more difficult than they might appear, and a thorough answer requires reviewing everything from United Nations protocols to newsroom policies. Relevant etymology is a good starting point.
Militants use aggressive, sometimes violent, tactics to pursue certain goals. The word is based on the Latin term for solider ("milit"), and most major news organizations seem to march in step when they use it.
The label has been applied to all sorts of people, from members of political parties to environmentalists, from labour leaders to religious fundamentalists. It's considered a relatively objective way to describe combative behaviour. Someone who holds a placard and marches peacefully is not militant; someone who hurls a Molotov cocktail or breaks down a barricade is.
Individuals who form their own armed units, militia, and carry out surprise attacks are also considered militant. This is the origin of the term guerrilla warfare. It has nothing to do with "gorillas" in jungles. The Spanish expression entered the English language during conflicts in Europe 200 years ago, and literally means "small war" (little guerra.)
Another common word, partisan, has similar roots but rarely implies bayonets, bullets or bombs nowadays.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, partisans were commandos assigned to secret missions. Based on the Italian word for "part" (partigiano), the term eventually became synonymous with guerrilla forces.
Nowadays, partisan frequently means someone who supports a specific person, party or cause with words not weapons. If we don't pay enough attention to language, however, we can wind up recruited to a cause without even realizing it. The term terrorism is an example.
Terrorists carry out acts of terrorism, a provocative noun that many journalists have treated with special care for years. Editors caution against tossing it about thoughtlessly likening it to a grenade that can blow up in your face when it's thrown back at you.
For starters, there is no single definition. Even when people agree on broad parameters, classifying a specific act as "terrorism" or a group of suspects as "terrorists" involves judgment.
Our views depend on where we stand, and affect how we see the attackers, their motives, as well as their targets. Such perceptions can influence our choice of language, summed up by the popular expression: "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter."
Sometimes the "un" in "undefined" seems to stand for United Nations. The organization was sharply criticized for deep divisions over racism that surfaced at a recent conference in Durban, South Africa. And it is certainly not united over a definition of terrorism.
During the past few decades, the UN has adopted a dozen protocols and conventions that condemn global terrorism, and which urge countries to "fight the scourge" and "banish it from the face of earth," in the words of Secretary General Kofi Annan.
But its members have not been able to sit down and agree on exactly what they're talking about.
As far back at 1937, the League of Nations tried to settle the matter. It defined terrorism as "all criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public." But the draft proposal was never ratified.
A 1999 UN resolution "reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them."
Exactly what "criminal acts" are in this context, however, remains fuzzy. Slamming hijacked passenger planes into skyscrapers is unquestionably included. But not every violent act is as easily classified. Some people are reluctant to renounce "freedom fighters" or "liberation army rebels" on their own turf, for example, while others want to challenge military campaigns that kill civilians.
After a five-day debate over the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, the General Assembly once again declared that terrorism is a threat to worldwide peace. But during discussions it was clear that some members don't consider what they call "legitimate attempts by people to resist foreign occupation" as criminal alluding specifically to disputes in the Middle East.
So the UN has still not taken a stand on some key questions. When a suicide bomber kills a crowd of shoppers in Israel is it "terrorism" or merely tragic violence in a war over territory? What if only soldiers are killed? If troops end up shooting unarmed civilians is it "state terrorism"? And how should the world see governments that help foreign militia overthrow existing regimes?
"The lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism has been a major obstacle to meaningful international countermeasures," admits the UN's own Terrorism Prevention Branch in a document on its Web site.
GOING IT ALONE
Although the United Nations has been unable to reach a consensus, many individual states have come up with their own official definitions of terrorism. Canada joined the pack this week when the federal government tabled legislation expected to be passed quickly:
Terrorist activity is an action within or outside Canada that is taken or threatened for political, religious or ideological purposes and threatens the public or national security by killing, seriously harming or endangering a person, causing substantial property damage that is likely to seriously harm people, or by interfering with or disrupting an essential service, facility or system.
Civil libertarians have raised concerns that the sweeping definition could be used to curtail some basic individual rights, including political protest. In the past, for instance, environmentalists and animal rights activists have been charged with minor crimes like mischief not terrorism. "This is a War Measures Act," according to Clayton Ruby, one of the country's best known defence lawyers.
Last year, Britain introduced a similar law that prohibits threats or actions "designed to influence (any) government or to intimidate the public (in any country)
for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause." Critics also think that the illegal "actions" referred to in this legislation are far too broad. They argue that vandals damaging property or disrupting phone lines might be considered terrorists, and that the phrase "serious risk to health" could include a union going on strike at a hospital.
People who back laws to fight terrorism have dismissed these complaints as either far-fetched or less important than the need to make citizens' lives safer.
The U.S. State Department, by the way, relies on its own guideline in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f (d): "The term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." Here "noncombatant" implies civilians and unarmed military support staff. The word "subnational" excludes the possibility that a country's national government could be directly guilty of terrorism.
DISTILLATION AND DISSENT
Even before Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government took a stab at defining terrorism, the country's spy agency had its own interpretation.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Act compels its members to investigate activities "directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political objective within Canada or a foreign state."
According to a CSIS report last year, "this distillation of terrorism into its basic elements makes no effort to ascribe value to the motives of the actors, and gives equal weight to terrorist acts directed toward foreign states and to persons who provide support for such acts. Terrorist violence and activities in support of such violence may be carried out in the name of independence, freedom, or religious belief, but Canada has chosen through its legislation to give first consideration to the act of serious violence, not the nature of the cause."
Scholars like Noam Chomsky, an American linguist well known for his scathing critiques of Washington's foreign policy, see such distillation in a different light. In his 1989 book Necessary Illusions, he contends that "the meaning of the term 'terrorism' is not seriously in dispute" because it's been laid out in so many government documents, including the official U.S. Code mentioned earlier.
Chomsky then cites a U.S. Army manual's definition: "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." Based on these words, he goes on to argue that the United States itself actively supports international terrorism "on a scale that puts its rivals to shame" in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador.
He has repeated this position on numerous occasions, including only days after last month's terrorist attacks against the United States. To Chomsky and his followers, it's hypocritical to acknowledge and condemn terrorism only when it is "perpetrated by official enemies" the type of definition he thinks might have been conveniently used in Stalinist Russia.
PENCILS AND ERASERS
In addition to outlining what constitutes terrorism, some countries have also drafted lists of groups that fall into the category. Critics view the practice as arbitrary, especially since the evidence collected is sometimes not made public on grounds of national security.
It's worth noting that the entries are regularly updated. Washington, for instance, recently revised its Federal Register. The Japanese Red Army and the Peruvian group Tupac Amaru were dropped. The Real IRA, accused of the 1998 bombing of Omagh in Northern Ireland, was added.
The original IRA, whose political wing, Sinn Fein, is involved in peace negotiations, remains off London's list. But Hezbollah, which holds seats in Lebanon's parliament, is considered a terrorist outfit.
Skeptics question the criteria used for classifying some organizations. For instance, until the early 1980s Iraq had a prominent spot on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism. When Baghdad went to war with Iran, one of America's bitter enemies, it was removed from the scroll. After the fighting stopped, Iraq was put back on.
Over time, some of the decisions made by governments have become conspicuous reminders of how subjective the process can be. For example, former South African president Nelson Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against apartheid, was once branded a terrorist.
Many news organizations have not bothered to try to define "terrorist" or "terrorism." Style manuals published by Canadian Press, Associated Press and the New York Times, for instance, do not give reporters and editors guidelines for using these terms in stories. Neither does the CBC.
On the other hand, some media outlets have offered their journalists direction. The Wall Street Journal says the word "should be used carefully, and specifically, to describe those people and nongovernmental organizations that plan and execute acts of violence against civilian or noncombatant targets."
The Globe and Mail tells its staff: "Use this term to describe groups or individuals who use violence against the innocent public, or the threat of it, to achieve political ends." Its 1998 Style Book cites several examples, including the Irish Republican Army and the Japanese Red Army. Neither group is on Washington's current (October, 2001) list of terrorists.
"The hijacking or bombing of planes, buses, public buildings, etc. is terrorism," the Globe's manual continues. "But for clarity we do not use this term to describe raids on military and police personnel or installations. They should simply be called guerrilla activity or some such, and government statements equating them with terrorism should be attributed."
The BBC, which is faced with the challenge of covering stories about sectarian violence in Northern Ireland for a local audience, says "members of illegal organizations who bomb and shoot civilians are unquestionably terrorists they use terror to achieve their objectives." Its 1996 News and Current Affairs Stylebook and Editorial Guide adds: "If there are occasions when the term is not appropriate, there are always other words available," including bombers, gunmen, killers, and murderers.
In August, New York Times columnist William Safire noted that because the word terrorist "terrifies many fair-minded editors
journalists have reached out for other nouns, like guerrilla, militant or paramilitary." The Times offers only vague advice here, reminding writers to use "the most accurate and impartial term, especially in cases where the political merits are disputed."
Safire observed that the sexist term "gunman" has jumped in popularity over the past few years in stories about Israel. Since AP doesn't have a rule governing the word terrorism or gunman, he asked the editor of the agency's stylebook, Norm Goldstein, how choices are made. "Words like gunmen, separatist and rebel are often more precise than terrorist and less likely to be viewed as judgmental," Goldstein said. "We often prefer the more specific words for that reason."
But not long after the World Trade Center towers collapsed on live television Sept. 11, the word "terrorist" bombarded AP and other news copy like never before. The horrifying mass murder of thousands of people was soon labelled the single deadliest act of terrorism in modern history.
Then Reuters, which lost six of its own employees in the attacks, issued an internal memo reminding staff of a long-standing policy: "We do not use terms like 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' unless they are in a direct quote or are otherwise attributable to a third party. We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity and background so that readers can make their own decisions based on the facts."
Reuters has staff in 160 countries and believes this approach is vital because it offers accurate and impartial accounts of events in many parts of the world where governments might want to pressure reporters to portray foes as "terrorists."
Reaction to the memo inside and outside the news service was so strong, however, the company issued a public clarification on Oct. 2. It defended its philosophy of avoiding the term "terrorist" in stories, but apologized if anyone was offended by the way the argument was presented: