There is apparently no legally binding definition of the word terrorism in the eyes of the criminal justice system, though it is described by the Oxford dictionary as "the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims," and the US Defense Department describes it as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful 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.”
So it is fitting that a term that is difficult to accurately define could encompass a very broad range in application. Yet, if you asked three people at random to describe an act of terrorism, you would probably receive a combination of the following answers: "bombing", "bombing" and "bombing".
The word "Violence" was used in both definitions, yet there are still ways to commit acts of terrorism without the use of force or bloodshed. In Jacksonville, Arkansas, a man has recently been charged with multiple acts of sabotage after he attacked the power grid in a rural area of the state, the U.S. Justice Department said Saturday.
Over a period of several months, Jason Woodring, 37, made targeted attacks on high-voltage power lines and a substation which resulted in the loss of power to thousands of homes and businesses.
The FBI, who became involved in the investigation on August 21st after a high-voltage power line was brought down in Cabot, said that the perpetrator must have "above-average" electrical skills.
So could these attacks also be classed as terrorism?
"Political" is another keyword used in both definitions of terrorism, and it seems that in one of the incidents, an arson attack at an electricity sub-station in Keo, the words "You should have expected US" were found inscribed on a metal control panel, which suggested that the person responsible had a political agenda. The words "Threat" and "Intimidation" were also considered to be significant in the description of terrorist attacks, and by continuing to affect power supplies, the grid damage certainly carried a threat of major disruption for many thousands of people and may have escalated further had Woodring not been arrested, as he had already attempted to use a moving train to bring down a power line.
The attacks highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid, and brought into sharp focus how a larger-scale attack could potentially throw the whole country into a state of emergency. Aside from criminal acts which target the grid "hardware" such as power lines, the national grid system is vulnerable to hacking as it is controlled by complex network of computers connected to the Internet.
Byron Dorgan, who served in the House of Representatives for 12 years and for 18 years in the Senate, has spent his retirement years writing a book where the plot centers around a hacker’s bid to devastate the grid system by shutting it down.
Although the book is a work of fiction, Dorgan says that his ideas were seeded from headline news, in particular a story some years ago involving a rumor that either the Russians or the Chinese had put a virus in the American electrical grid system.
“I think that we are vulnerable, and it’s not just me, it’s the National Science Foundation and a number of people in the energy industry,” Dorgan, 71, told The New York Times. ‘Glass jaw’ is a pretty good description of the grid system, honestly.”
He is not alone in his views, as Janet Napolitano, the former Secretary of Homeland Security says that it is not "if" but "when" such an attack will occur.
“Our country will, at some point, face a major cyber event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy and everyday functioning of our society,” Janet Napolitano said in a speech to the National Press Club.
Whatever the motivation or mode of application, terrorism could also be simply described as ‘a force which brings disruption and harm to innocent victims." The ways in which a terrorists can choose to do this are, unfortunately, many and varied and limited only by imagination. We can only hope that they are also limited by their conscience.
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