If we try to find something solid in the history and concept of terrorism, and not let Putin (or Bush/Cheney for that matter) pluck a word and twist it into a scare tactic du jour, we have to turn to the chaos of the great French Revolution of the 18C. It was a derogatory term applied to those exercising wonton physical force. Robespierre used it to justify the power of his Committee of Public Safety (the de facto government of 1793-4) and its efforts to dominate counter-revolutionaries and the populace generally during the so-called “Reign of Terror.”
The term gained wider use in the 19C, to describe those non-state actors (often anarchists) who promoted violence, disorder, and revolution in various parts of Europe. Beginning in about the 1970s the latest round of terrorism flourished and is still with us. Sometimes it was motivated by nationalism, sometimes by separatism, sometimes by civilizational/religious anxieties, and sometimes it was merely a violent expression of animosity towards whatever regime/government/elite who was in power in a particular area. We can recall the spate of hijackings and bombings from that era, and the notable attack by radical islamicists on Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich over fifty years ago.
The most recent wave of course was marked by 9/11 (twenty-two years ago) and the resulting “War on Terror” that brought US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a variety of deployments and actions by US and forces and our allies in a wide range of situations ever since. The campaigns of “shock and awe” that we launched certainly generated a commensurate amount of terror among innocents as well as any actual enemies, but since we were fighting “terrorism,” any impact on them was only collateral damage.
On the domestic front, there is a long line of actions, stemming back to the 18C, in which coercion, destruction, and fear were deployed against civilian targets. Examples include the Puerto Rican separatists attacking the Capitol (1954), Timothy McVeigh’s bomb in Oklahoma City (1995), the Boston Marathon bombing (2013), and MAGA-ites on January 6, 2021. If such an action was aimed at or justified by a critique of the incumbent power structure (i.e. the Government, Big Business, etc.) then it was characterized as terrorism. In contrast, in foreign and official “war” contexts, comparable tactics and effects were described as ordinary and inherent in the nature of the conflict.
This distinction echoes the 19C origins. Terrorism is seen as a special kind of violence because it is 1) aimed at the state and the established order of society and 2) caused by someone other than another country’s military (which is called “war”). The recent attacks in Israel by Hamas might fall somewhere in between. Since the purpose of the state, as I have noted elsewhere, is to ensure public order on behalf of society as a whole; the purpose of terrorism is public disruption and the undermining of public faith in order. In other words, beyond the immediate destruction/death, the goal of “terrorists” is to raise the specter of societal collapse, anarchy, and chaos; i.e., the creation of a special kind of fear.
The existence of terrorism is thus a product of the democratization of “civil” power structures and of the extensive distribution of coercive (“military”) power. Attacks on pre-democratic power structures (monarchies/aristocracies/oligarchies) weren’t intended to undermine the public sense of order and security since there wasn’t really a “public,” and few cared what the hoi polloi thought. By the same token, the widespread distribution of coercive physical power (i.e. effective firearms or easily manageable explosives) is a predicate to the spread of terrorism, since the threat of disruption from a spear or sword or even pre-19C firearms couldn’t cause such widespread fear and the deployment of more powerful devices was effectively limited to states or organized insurrectionist organizations.
Weber said that the modern state was characterized by the claim of a monopoly of legitimate violence. Yet, the spread of firearms and explosives has posed an essential challenge to that claim.
All of this lends a certain perversity to those who claim an absolute right to violence as the premise of the 2d Amendment. They are, in effect, saying that the Constitution guarantees the right to violently resist the state (i.e. those exercising constitutional authority). They want to be terrorists. Never mind that the folks back in 1787 thought they were getting rid of arbitrary government (and, for the most part, successfully). There are other problems with the broad reading of the 2d Amendment, too; not relevant here.
So, terrorism is a label, much abused in both international and domestic discourse. It’s hallmark is not “terror” (i.e. deep fear) per se, nor violence against civilians; rather it goes to a certain conception of society and public order. It’s too often bandied about as a ready-made license to kill/terrorize in retaliation/prevention; but just as long as it’s “our guys” doing it, it is, apparently, OK.