We started the unit with a modified version of a concept formation lesson on the definition of terrorism. I began by asking what are some prototypical examples (Sept 11th 2001, suicide bomber in the Middle East, etc.), and then we talked about what they have in common. Then I showed the students definitions of terrorism by the UN and the US Dept of Defense, and we looked for what was in those definitions that we hadn't found already by analyzing the examples.
So far so straightforward. Then we did the cool part which was to break up into pairs and have each pair look at a case that might be considered terrorism, but might not. Some examples: Sherman's March to the Sea; the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII; the Chechen rebellion; some of the groups working to end apartheid in South Africa; abortion clinic bombings.
We had a great extended conversation about how to evaluate these are terrorist or not, why some students would and wouldn't. Really high level, lots of good thinking from many different students. One theme that emerged was that the students were sympathetic to a group's goals, but not their methods. Then one student noted that it seemed like all terrorism is born of desperation -- hence their violent methods. I asked if any of them had changed their own ideas about terrorism from the cases we'd seen or the points that'd been made. One said he'd come to have a new idea of 'justifiable terrorism' from the cases we looked at.
Then another student, chronically and severely disengaged in all his classes, with equal parts scorn for the whole endeavor and genuine wonderment that we could truly have been filling an entire day working on this, said "Well, I mean, umm, why don't we just get a dictionary and look up the real definition." His facial expression was "duh!" He had to hesitate in asking it because he was so incredulous that we'd really just spent the last 45 minutes that way.
HA! Indeed, why bother with all this interesting thinking about different forms of terrorism, how they challenge our traditional notion of what it is, and all this yammering? There's a dam dictionary right over there on the shelf. Do you have way too much free time? How hard can it be to just get the real answer?!
I invited him to get the dictionary and read the definition to us when he'd found it. He did - it was the typical bland definition a paperback dictionary would have. Though he'd waited way too long to draw the veil of decency over our little exercise, at least we can wrap it up straightaway now!
How sweet. I noted that the dictionary's definition is a fine starter, but was impressed by the many good points the students had made, which advanced us quite a bit to a sophisticated understanding of the issues, such as whether states can commit terrorism and whether acts of war could be terrorism. And even that terrorists have motives that we might be able to empathize with, though we may deplore their methods.
And my young friend was happy to have cleared the water after all the mud had been stirred up from the bottom. There's a right answer - let's get it and be done with this marvelling at complication.