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The American Department of Defense definition of terrorism is "the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological."
This definition was carefully crafted to distinguish between terrorism and other kinds of violence. The act of terrorism is defined independent of the cause that motivates it. People employ terrorist violence in the name of many causes. The tendency to label as terrorism any violent act which we do not approve is erroneous. Terrorism is a specific kind of violence. 
The official definition says that terrorism is calculated. Terrorists generally know what they are doing. Their selection of a target is planned and rational. They know the effect they seek. Terrorist violence is neither spontaneous nor random. Terrorism is intended to produce fear; by implication, that fear is engendered in someone other than the victim. In other words, terrorism is a psychological act conducted for its impact on an audience.
Finally, the definition addresses goals. Terrorism may be motivated by political, religious, or ideological objectives. In a sense, terrorist goals are always political, as extremists driven by religious or ideological beliefs usually seek political power to compel society to conform to their views. The objectives of terrorism distinguish it from other violent acts aimed at personal gain, such as criminal violence. However, the definition permits including violence by organized crime when it seeks to influence government policy. Some drug cartels and other international criminal organizations engage in political action when their activities influence governmental functioning. The essence of terrorism is the intent to induce fear in someone other than its victims to make a government or other audience changes its political behavior. 
Terrorism is common practice in insurgencies, but insurgents are not necessarily terrorists if they comply with the rules of war and do not engage in those forms of violence identified as terrorist acts. While the legal distinction is clear, it rarely inhibits terrorists who convince themselves that their actions are justified by a higher law. Their single-minded dedication to a goal, however poorly it may be articulated, renders legal sanctions relatively ineffective. In contrast, war is subject to rules of international law. Terrorists recognize no rules. No person, place, or object of value is immune from terrorist attack. There are no innocents.
This situation did not always prevail. Throughout history, extremists have practiced terrorism to generate fear and compel a change in behavior. Frequently, terrorism was incidental to other forms of violence, such as war or insurgency. Before the nineteenth century, terrorists usually granted certain categories of people immunity from attack. Like other warriors, terrorists recognized innocents-- people not involved in conflict. Terrorists usually excluded women, children, and the elderly from target lists. For example, in late nineteenth-century Russia, radicals planning the assassination of Tsar Alexander II aborted several planned attacks because they risked harming innocent people. Old-school terrorism was direct; it intended to produce a political effect through the injury or death of the victim.
The development of bureaucratic states led to a profound change in terrorism. Modern governments have a continuity that older, personality governments did not. Terrorists found that the death of a single individual, even a monarch, did not necessarily produce the policy changes they sought. Terrorists reacted by turning to an indirect method of attack. By the early twentieth century, terrorists began to attack people previously considered innocents to generate political pressure. These indirect attacks create a public atmosphere of anxiety and undermine confidence in government. Their unpredictability and apparent randomness make it virtually impossible for governments to protect all potential victims. The public demands protection that the state cannot give. Frustrated and fearful, the people then demand that the government make concessions to stop the attacks.
Modern terrorism offers its practitioners many advantages. First, by not recognizing innocents, terrorists have an infinite number of targets. They select their target and determine when, where, and how to attack. The range of choices gives terrorists a high probability of success with minimum risk. If the attack goes wrong or fails to produce the intended results, the terrorists can deny responsibility.

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