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April 19, 2013

How do we define terrorism? – Lesson Plan

This lesson is adapted from Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy used with permission from Choices for the 21st Century Education Program, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.


This lesson poses the question, “What is a terrorist?” Students will learn about situations in Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Chiapas, South Africa and the Weathermen Underground in the United States.

Students will explore a framework for analyzing political violence and terrorism, apply this framework to historical and contemporary case studies, and develop a working definition of terrorism.


  1. Pass out the reading passage “Revolutionaries or Terrorists?“, and have students read it either aloud or to themselves.
  2. Call on students to identify the points of disagreement that emerged in the United Nations’ debates on terrorism. What arguments were made against condemning terrorism? List the items on the chalkboard. Ask students to speculate about what the Cuban representative to the U.N. might have been referring to.
  3. Exploring legal and ethical judgments – Ask students to identify the standards the international community has established for when force may be used. Ask students to review the standards the international community has used for how force may be used. Have them list several examples of political violence, citing examples from either wars or terrorist acts. Explore these examples in terms of the decisions to use violence and how violence was employed. Are there examples of unjustifiable decisions to use force? Are there examples when the decision to use force was justifiable, but the kind of force used was not?
  4. Case Studies – Distribute “Case Studies – Revolutionaries or Terrorists?” to students. Form groups of three to five students each. In groups ask the students to consider the case studies presented. Emphasize that the intent is for students to explore the debate over legitimate and illegitimate uses of force and the distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters. Assign a student from each group to record the group’s conclusions.
  5. Sharing Conclusions – After the groups have completed the worksheet (“Case Studies – Revolutionaries or Terrorists?“), invite group spokespersons to share their conclusions. Which cases did they label as terrorism? Were there cases that were particularly difficult to decide? Why? Challenge students to come up with a working definition of terrorism based on specific criteria.

Extension Ideas

With the bomb attack on the Boston Marathon, there has been much debate about the use of the word “terrorism.”

The Associated Press reported this article about the fact that President Barack Obama chose not to use the word “terrorism” in his first remarks hours after Monday’s bombing.

Washington Post political commentator Charles Krauthammer, a long-time critic of President Barack Obama, wrote an op-ed about the use of the word “terror” in relation to the Boston Marathon bombing. Students can read the op-ed and talk about the politics of the word “terrorism.”

Use these articles to engage your students in a conversation about the latest attack and the definition of terror.

Students can submit a Student Voice to NewsHour Extra for possible publication.

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