Terrorists, Gunmen, Militants: How Do We Define Acts of Violence?

Were the Pathankot attackers terrorists?

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Explainers
5 min read
(Photo: Reuters/Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)

On 31 December 2015 heavily armed men sneaked into India from across the border. They mounted an attack on the Pathankot air force base, killing soldiers, putting crucial military assets at risk and endangering the lives of civilians.

The western media has refrained from calling these men terrorists, using more neutral terms like ‘gunmen’ instead. In the Indian media, the word terrorist has been widely used.

Were these men terrorists? How do we know when to deploy the term, so laden with political and moral implications?

Should the Media Always be Objective?

Reuters is one of the largest news wire services in the world. And while its content is carried by major news outlets throughout the world, there has been controversy around its strict policy of objectivity, particularly when it comes to the use of the word “terrorist”.

Reuters refused to call the 9/11 attackers ‘terrorists’. (Photo: Reuters)
Reuters refused to call the 9/11 attackers ‘terrorists’. (Photo: Reuters)

Even in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Reuters refused to use the word “terrorist” to describe those who planned and executed the attack on the World Trade Centre. The matter became more controversial when an internal memo by their global head of news was leaked.

We all know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and that Reuters upholds the principle that we do not use the word terrorist... We’re trying to treat everyone on a level playing field, however tragic it’s been and however awful and cataclysmic for the American people and people around the world.

Stephen Jukes, Reuters Global Head for News in the leaked memo

Reuters came under attack for being neutral to the point of being insensitive. However, the question remains: Is there a bias in who the media chooses to call a terrorist?

A Question of Definition?

First the obvious question. Is there any clear guideline on when the use of the word ‘terrorist’ is appropriate, or when ‘insurgent’ or ‘militant’ should instead be used?

Terrorists, Gunmen, Militants: How Do We Define Acts of Violence?

For Praveen Swami, Strategic Affairs Editor of the Indian Express the words have a clear and precise definition, and it shouldn’t be difficult when to know which one to deploy.

People who engage in violence against civilians with overtly political objectives are terrorists. Insurgents on the other hand, take on the state and its institutions. The key is to follow this definition objectively. In the Mazar-e-Sharif attack in Afghanistan on the Indian consulate for example, the target was clearly the Indian state and not civilians.

Praveen Swami, National Editor, Strategic and International Affairs, The Indian Express
Terrorists, Gunmen, Militants: How Do We Define Acts of Violence?

But politically loaded terms are often over-scrutinised. The words ‘militant’ came to be used for violent non-state actors during the Punjab insurgency. The violent pro-Khalistan movement implemented something called the Panthic Code.

Sikhs demanding a separate state of Khalistan hold sabres during a demonstration in Bonn, Germany in 1998. (Photo: Reuters)
Sikhs demanding a separate state of Khalistan hold sabres during a demonstration in Bonn, Germany in 1998. (Photo: Reuters)

Among other things, it forbade journalists from using the word terrorist or extremist while referring to violent actors in the Khalistan movement. Any violation of the code would result in reprisal, often violent, for journalists. ‘Militant’, Praveen Swami feels, is too broad a term and is best abandoned. It confuses violent and non-violent actors. One can be militant environmentalist or even a militant anti-war activist. The term denotes the degree of commitment to an ideology, not necessarily violence.

Rajdeep Sardesai agrees with the definition of what constitutes a terrorist, but thinks it is broader in its application. Anyone employing fear and terror as a political tool is a terrorist. Till recently, western countries and media were reluctant to call acts of violence in our part of the world terrorist attacks. However, things have been changing around the world since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

The attacks on the World Trade Centre and even the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai made terrorism a global issue. Even Pakistan has changed its attitude somewhat since it has been a victim of terrorism. The west sometimes can’t reconcile to what constitutes an act of terror in our part of the world.

Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor, India Today

The Big Question: Does Terror Have a Religion or Ideology?

Till recently, western countries and media were reluctant to call acts of violence in our part of the world terrorist attacks. (Photo Courtesy: AP)
Till recently, western countries and media were reluctant to call acts of violence in our part of the world terrorist attacks. (Photo Courtesy: AP)

Are Maoists terrorists? Is there such a thing as saffron terror? Is there an inclination towards calling violent acts perpetrated by followers of a particular religion terrorist acts? The answer to the conundrum lies in applying the definition of terrorist without hyphenation or bias, feels Sardesai.

Trying to associate terrorism with any ideology or religion can lead us [the media] down a slippery slope. Maoists wage war against the state, but what about a group like the LTTE? Haven’t they indulged in acts of terror?

Rajdeep Sardesai
Terrorists, Gunmen, Militants: How Do We Define Acts of Violence?

For Swami, terrorist does not describe a person but an act. Can we call Maoists terrorists? Not on the whole, feels Swami.

Security personnel stand guard after an attack on a police camp at Kathua district, south of Jammu. (Photo: Reuters)
Security personnel stand guard after an attack on a police camp at Kathua district, south of Jammu. (Photo: Reuters)

If there is proof that Maoists primarily attack civilians and not security forces most of time, we can call them terrorists. When they killed Congress politicians, they indulged in a terrorist act. In Kashmir the situation is different. The brunt of the violence has been borne by civilians. The key is to have a precise definition and follow it. If during a riot, innocent people are specifically targetted for a political end it is a terrorist act. The word should describe an action, not a group of people.

Praveen Swami

The real problem may lie in the fact that brutal attacks on a country, whether on a military installation like Pathankot or civilians as in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks shakes the population to the core. Journalists, as susceptible as anyone else, can respond to that emotional impulse as well.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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