"Terrorist" is a word that at once vilifies and justifies, serving the same function in today's politics and popular imagination as was served by the term "Nazi" a half century ago, or "communist" thereafter, or "witch" in our colonial days, in that it is "always, or even necessarily, wrong." Few appellations today are as effective to ostracize a person, movement, or organization from civilized company, and an astonishing array of actions and reactions can be fully warranted when having as their intent a response to the mere threat -- much less an actual act -- of terrorism.

This Essay does not defend terrorism, or argue, as others have done, that in specific circumstances terrorism can be morally justified. It argues instead that many criminally violent acts are mistakenly labeled "terrorism" because the innocent victims, the sine qua non to find prototypical terrorism, were not innocent in a required sense. From this analysis the article seeks to distinguish the term's use as a tool of political propaganda from its utility as a category of moral and social philosophy.

The analysis begins with a description of the phenomenological impact upon the American psyche from terrorist acts. I use that foundation to identify the elements that render an act identifiable as "terrorism," particularly the presumed innocence of the targeted victims. Having isolated the elements of terrorist acts that underlie their psychological impacts, I will be in a better position to critically reexamine the events of 9/11, and to suggest what duties this understanding places upon citizens of a participatory democracy, in which each person accrues collective responsibility for acts of its representative government.

Document Type


Publication Date

December 2004

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Law Commons



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