Words are beautiful and they give us so much. Through using words we can share ideas and more importantly we can develop concepts and literally take things forward. They inform, they entertain and they explain.
They form the framework through which we understand everything from science to art to religion. They are created by our culture and in turn they create our culture. And they are dynamic, evolving and developing as we create new words and change the meaning of existing words to reflect the changing world that we live in. But it is perhaps their dynamic nature that creates the greatest challenge that words present.
In some ways the creation of words is simple. All that it takes is for one person to say something and another to understand it and we have a new word. Changing the meaning of a word is not as simple but it still happens. And it happens often. Collectively as we modify the meaning and the usage of words in everyday use we change their meaning. Sometimes entirely, sometimes subtly and sometimes we expand their meaning and dictionaries are amended and updated to reflect the change. That is except for in a legal context where their meaning cannot be as dynamic and in this context at least, their meaning can be literally carved in stone.
In legal English we find words in use that have fallen out of use in everyday language as they are no longer relevant or because they relate to concepts that are rarely encountered in our modern lives. Whereas the legal definition of words that have fallen out of everyday usage can remain straightforward, what of the words whose definition has changed. Here we have one use for most contexts and one for legal usage. A forest is a densely wooded area, correct? Well, yes and no. In everyday speech yes, a forest is a densely wooded area, but the legal definition of a forest is an area reserved for hunting, possibly for but not necessarily exclusively by a monarch. And what of the word assault? To assault means to attack. We hear it in the news when one person attacks another or in a military context when one nation attacks another. But in a legal context we have to turn the clock back to see how the word was being used when its legal definition was determined under common law as to act in a manner that would make one feel that they were about to be attacked. In fact one can be assaulted without any physical contact occurring, which is significantly different from the situation where a person is attacked or a nation invaded. With the need for the law to be known and be predictable the definition of words in a legal context must also be known and predictable. Although the law is dynamic, the definition of the words used to create the law must be static.
In most cases, although we have conflicting definitions for the same word, we rarely face any complications. If we incorrectly use the word forest, or even assault, it is unlikely that there will be any significant consequences. But what about words that relate to more complex and more serious concepts such as terrorism. Although terrorism doesn’t have two conflicting meanings, there is significant debate about what is terrorism, what isn’t terrorism and more importantly what might be terrorism. And this is particularly challenging as in many cases there are serious legal sanctions reserved only for those convicted of terrorism including execution or the removal of citizenship.
So what is terrorism? If we take a simple definition it is the use of violence in the pursuit of a political aim. Ok, that’s straightforward enough but it is very broad. Is it any violence? And what about terror? Surely a definition of terrorism should include a reference to terror. If we look in more detail at a more academic definition we might find terrorism defined as the use of violent acts with the aim of inducing a feeling of terror in the general population in the pursuit of a political aim. Now this definition tells us a little more, it is not the acts of violence in themselves that are intended to advance the political aim but the perception that they create amongst the population. But the academic definition introduces it’s own confusion by looking at not just the acts and their purpose but also considers whether they are justifiable. It is often said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Nelson Mandela and Jose Gusmão were both labeled as terrorists at one time.
Although academia can help us to understand terrorism in its broadest sense it is in a legal setting that we really must have an accurate and reliable definition of terrorism but unfortunately it is one where perhaps we don’t. Over recent years many nations have updated their existing and introduced new anti- terrorism legislation. Arguably this is necessary as terrorism has changed significantly. Whereas it typically consisted of relatively small acts of violence designed to induce fear they have evolved to include massive and catastrophic acts of mass murder. As a result ant-terrorism laws have been expanded to include more and more specific acts within the definition of acts of terrorism. But does this evolution of terrorist tactics really warrant this expansion of the legal definition of terrorism?
Given the sizeable amount of anti-terrorism legislation that many nations have introduced in recent years it is perhaps the legal definition of terrorism rather than the everyday definition that has changed the most. Although both definitions have expanded, the everyday and academic definitions have essentially remained the same in that terrorism is the pursuit of a political aim through a campaign of violent acts intended to create feelings of terror in the general population. The legal definition by comparison has expanded to include criminal acts that may or may not be motivated by a political aim. Arguably it is the everyday and academic definitions that give us the most accurate, reliable and credible definition of terrorism and it is this definition that we should use in a legal context also.