Terrorism: Distinguish Terrorism from Violent Crimes

What basic components or criteria can be used to distinguish terrorism from other types of violence?

Some people think that terrorism and criminal violence is the same type of crime, or at the very least, that they have big commonalities.  However, terrorism is not like other violent crimes, and therefore, there are basic components and criteria that can be used to distinguish the two.  Dr. David Goldstein (2007) puts this sometimes misunderstood notion into perspective:

(…) the terrorist is often well trained and state-supported. He or she has a specific goal in mind, often more symbolic than opportunistic. On the other hand, it is a fair statement that the “ordinary” criminal is one who seeks opportunistic targets, has little backing, is selfish, lacks discipline and may be deterred relatively easily.

In general terrorists are assumed to be well trained as opposed to a regular criminal, therefore propensity for violence and the level of destruction can be much greater.  Terrorists are more likely to believe in their cause so much that they are even willing to die for it (Goldstein, 2007).

This is very unlike the mainstream type of violence, where, for example, the criminal perpetrator runs for cover when being chased by the police.  Criminals tend to hide after they commit a crime, but terrorists often like to take credit and bask in the media’s propaganda.  Another factor to consider is the span of attacks of regular criminals and terrorists.  Most criminals operate within the proximity of their hide out, while most terrorists operate within whole countries and many of them operate internationally; with hideouts/safe houses in many geographic regions (White, 2006).


Goldstein, D. (2007). The Criminology of Terrorism. Retrieved April 22, 2007, from Boston University, Vista Online Web site: http://vista.bu.edu/webct/
White, J.R. (2006). Terrorism and Homeland Security. (5th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

Article written by Radek Gadek

Radek holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University. He is currently doing consulting work and runs this blog to provide relevant information on criminal justice degrees, colleges and related careers.

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