The Problems of Legitimacy in Discussing Terrorism

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

The Problems of Legitimacy in Discussing Terrorism

Zion Miller

Working on the Prosecution Project has raised more questions for me than answers. One of the largest has been “what/who is a terrorist?” This is an especially thorny question for me because the project covers so many different ideologies. For some, these groups and individuals are freedom fighters, very fine people, or heroic people taking a stand against immorality. For others, these groups and individuals are the lowest of the low, little more than animals, and the scum of the earth.

While ultimately these value statements have no meaning to the project, they do demonstrate the subjectivity of the word “terrorist.” So, what does terrorism really mean? As it turns out, there is no widely accepted definition for terrorism. The UN has tried and failed to establish an internationally agreed upon definition, resulting in every country having their own definition — sometimes several definitions with varying degrees of specificity and scope. 

One of the reasons for the lack of a widely accepted legal definition of terrorism is the question of legitimacy. Fundamentally, if we consider terrorism to be an action designed to advance a socio-political agenda (as tPP does), that action must be deemed illegitimate by the State or those in power. Otherwise, actions by organizations such as the police or the CIA, whose actions implicitly advance an (accepted) socio political agenda, could be considered terrorism.

Both of these organizations have been called terrorists before. The police have faced such accusations from individuals concerned about abuse of force against minorities in the United States, and the CIA has faced similar accusations stemming from its covert operations abroad. In a similar vein, Hamas has been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States but is considered a necessary and morally justified resistance by others. These questions of legitimacy and the subjectivity of it make defining terrorism a difficult thing to do.

Despite the difficulty in determining a universally agreed upon definition, there are codified definitions in US law and agencies that can be examined. The FBI defines terrorism as being “Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” More specifically in the law, the Patriot Act (2001) defines terrorism as: 

“activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” 

But even when defined, not all terrorism is treated equally. That fact is very important to our project. It’s one of the things we study closely by coding for whether or not a defendant is “othered.” In many ways, this inequality stems from the previously discussed problem of legitimacy. Simply look at how the news, particularly Fox, discusses terrorism inspired by Islam compared to how they discuss terrorism inspired by white nationalism. Fox states that white nationalism is not a legitimate threat, which their viewers agree with, and implicitly argues that the ideology and reasoning for these attacks is legitimate — and therefore more acceptable. 

Jihadist attacks, in comparison, are played up as an existential threat to America. Their actions are entirely and without question illegitimate, meaning they should be punished to a greater degree.

White shooters are mentally ill, brown shooters are fanatical and beyond redemption. This rhetoric leads to more prosecution of those we consider to be less legitimate, or “othered,” and a lower awareness of the dangers of white nationalism even though it is responsible for more deaths than any other ideology in America.

Terrorism is clearly difficult to define, and the definition is inherently subject to and influenced one’s determination of legitimacy. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. The police are heroes to some and villains to others. But even when we agree as a community who terrorists are, as we have with white nationalists and jihadists, the degree to which we view their actions and ideologies as legitimate impacts our rhetoric and actions towards them. Consider the legal definitions of terrorism listed above from the FBI and Patriot Act. Neither of them say that white nationalism is less egregious than Islamic terrorism, yet, jihadist are prosecuted more frequently than white nationalists despite their higher rate of offense. Perceptions matter. That’s why the Prosecution Project’s work is important, so that we can better understand how our perceptions play out into real world consequences.


Works Cited

Boot, Max. “Not All Terrorism Is Treated Equally.” Washington Post, 15 Mar. 2019,

Chapekis, Athena, and Sarah M. Moore. “The Prosecution of ‘Others’: Presidential Rhetoric and the Interrelation of Framing, Legal Prosecutions, and the Global War on Terror.” Critical Studies on Terrorism, vol. 12, no. 3, 2019, pp. 533–553., doi:10.1080/17539153.2019.1599164.

Chompsky, Noam. “Libya in U.S. Demonology.” Covert Action, no. 26, 1986, pp. 15–25. CIA Library,

DataDhrumil. “Americans Are More Worried About White Nationalism After El Paso.” FiveThirtyEight, ABC News, 16 Aug. 2019,

“Fox News Hypocrisy on White Nationalist Terrorists Vs Muslim Terrorists Exposed.” Youtube, NowThis, 14 Aug. 2019,

Gramlich, John. “Most Americans Haven’t Heard of the ‘Alt-Right’.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 Dec. 2016,

Howard, Greg. “The Police Are America’s Terrorists.” The Concourse, 8 Apr. 2015,

“Terrorism.” FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 3 May 2016,

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