Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and activist scholar Noam Chomsky think the United States is a terrorist state. Post-Taliban Afghanistan has been called a terrorist state, run by U.S.-backed warlords, and Israel's summer 2006 battle with Hizbollah renewed charges that it's a terrorist state.
Whether there is such a thing as "state terrorism" is an enduring questions for those seeking to define and prosecute terrorist acts. An accusation of state terrorism can negatively impact global public opinion about a state's use of military force.
Legitimate vs. illegitimate uses of state violence
Any claim that a state commits terrorism has at its heart an argument over states' legitimate uses of violence. In the modern system of nation-states, we agree that sovereign states have the legitimate right to use violence in some contexts that individuals don't. Governments can wage war, but sub-state actors cannot.
This system evolved from earlier tribal systems in which feuds and random violence perpetuated disputes, rather than resolving them. When we permit the state to punish criminal acts—such as by putting murderers on trial, rather than taking revenge into our own hands—we guarantee that criminals are punished without entering into an endless cycle of violent retribution. When this system functions well, it ensures that wrongdoers are punished, while minimizing societal violence. But there are certainly instances in which states violate the tacit rules. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule are notable examples of states that terrorized their own, and other, citizens.
The legitimate domain of state violence is a constantly evolving issue. Salient examples in the United States include the debate over the death penalty, and those over whether the Second Amendment accords the right to bear arms to states or individuals.
Terrorism originated as a state action, with the French revolutionary state's "reign of terror" instituted in 1793, following the popular overthrow of the monarchy. The nascent government, eager to preserve post-revolution order, instituted dictatorial measures, including execution of those disloyal to the new state. The term "terrorism," which appeared in both English and French usage by the end of the 18th century, was subsequently associated with any use of violence or its threat to achieve political objectives.
The French and American revolutions unleashed the idea that people could overthrow tyrranical regimes. Terrorism became a dual concept, associated at once with the use of anti-government violence, and with the birth of new governments.
Many modern nationalist movements have had terrorist activities at their root. Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), a late-19th century Russian group, used assassinations to hasten the end of Tsarist rule. Serbian and Bosnian nationalism combined in the early 20th century to bring down the Hapsburg Empire, most visibly in the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin helped lead to the creation of an Irish national government two years later.
The meaning of terrorism shifted in the twentieth century. Nazi and Fascist abuses of power re-established the association between state-sponsored violence and terrorism in the 1930s. Following World War II, terrorism became a largely anti-government activity, when anti-colonial nationalist movements used terrorist tactics to overthrow colonial rule. These movements used positive terminology to describe themselves as freedom fighters, revolutionaries, and liberators.
Efforts to define terrorism more precisely haven't fully succeeded. Scholars have argued that terrorism is a subjective term that reflects its user's sympathies. The most frequently repeated phrase in this vein is that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."