Violent Extremism v. Terrorism. Branding a Dangerous Phenomenon

Terrorism or, phrased in a politically correct manner, violent extremism, has existed since groups of people were first opposed in conflicts and wars. Both expressions are legitimate. They can fulfill their function. However, while some people and experts opt for the word ‘terrorism,’ others prefer to talk about ‘violent extremism’ or have no preference for either.

In actual fact, the older term – terrorism – is understood by a wider audience, especially among the more senior of generations. The younger term – violent extremism – appears more scientific, as it emphasizes the fatal step from radicalization of political extremism to an escalation: from non-violence (which is not necessarily passive) towards inflicting physical harm. Some practitioners opt for a focus on preventing extremism as it turns to violence. Albeit, political extremism entails an inherent danger. It can for instance spread, especially through online communication. What is more, those radicalized are in too many cases not far from using violence to achieve social unrest or to advance their political agendas.

Why Not Call It Terrorism?

While the aforementioned difference between the terms terrorism and violent extremism cannot be neglected, the choice of words should not be overestimated. Why not utilize, in public discourse, the word ‘terrorism?’ After all, what is central and relevant is the denotation of both.

The wording a) must be understood by the audiences, b) must shy populations away from dangerous tendencies, and c) must render it clear that the modern state has to use preventive measures with a view on groomers, sympathizers, and would-be criminals, d) must use the monopoly of power of the executive and e) must put to use the means of justice when dealing with perpetrators both in order for the latter not to repeat their crimes and to uphold the rule of law while guaranteeing social peace.

A Connect to Hate

The question of how, and in how far, the phenomenon of hate is connected to the manifestation of terrorism, or violent extremism, has been advanced by scholars – but is so far under-researched. Hate need not necessarily beget violence. It seems evident, then, that grievances of individuals can lead to overt terrorism, but there is reason to believe that ideological factors play a role when it comes to extremism leading up to violence. Ideology differs within time and from place to place, but the overall developments – the history of terrorism – have been thoroughly identified by scholars.

To make any slips into dangerous routes towards violent extremism as unlikely as possible, a number of tools involving both state and civil society must be applied. The sets of measures depend on where and in what way the fatal potential of terrorism, or violent extremism, becomes perceivable. They also depend on the respective cultures of security, as well as the legally acceptable and available means of security in any given country.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
1 February 2023

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