You have likely heard the saying “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” What does that mean? It means that terrorism is often shaded by perception—by what one perceives is right or wrong, equitable or unjust. That can make terrorism tricky—but not impossible—to define. In fact, several characteristics distinguish terrorism from other violent acts.

An Overview of Terrorism
VIDEO 4:25
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The fear provoked by terrorists and the reactions to terrorism have changed so much about today’s world, from encryption on mobile phone apps to admission of refugees and distribution of foreign aid. These seemingly unrelated subjects are now inexorably tied to the public debate on terrorist threats and responses, making terrorism an essential global issue to understand.

In this module, we will

  • learn how scholars and governments around the world classify terrorist groups;
  • analyze where terrorist attacks occur (in the West, terrorism can seem more pervasive than before, especially following high-profile incidents, but the majority of terrorist attacks happen in just five countries);
  • investigate why terrorism is often described as requiring the “oxygen of publicity” and how the media plays a role in shaping how people perceive terrorism;
  • examine the changing perceptions of terrorism in the United States and how these shifts altered the country’s counterterrorism efforts throughout the twentieth century;
  • learn about the strategies in place to prevent terrorism by examining the options available to national security experts;
  • explore why people turn to terrorism (the motivations for terrorism are often deeply personal, but there are common themes);
  • and, last, zoom in on one piece of legislation that has had a lasting impact on how the United States fights terrorism in the post-9/11 world.
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