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Joseph M. Brown

State terrorism is a contentious topic in the field of terrorism studies. Some scholars argue that the concept of terrorism should only be applied to the behavior of nonstate actors. Others argue that certain government behaviors may be understood as terrorism if the intent of state violence and threats is to stoke fear and influence the behavior of a wider audience. Three possible conceptualizations of state terrorism are worth exploring: government sponsorship of nonstate actors’ terrorism, terrorism perpetrated by government agents outside a legal framework, and “inherent” state terrorism—acts perpetrated by the state in the everyday enforcement of law and order that, if perpetrated by nonstate actors, would clearly qualify as terrorism. Each of these conceptualizations yields insight about state behavior, highlighting particular uses of violence and threats as instruments of state policy. Depending on one’s conceptualization of state terrorism, common policies and functions of government possess an underlying terroristic logic. Analytical tools developed in the field of terrorism studies may be useful in helping us understand state behavior, when violence and threats appear to have a broader communicative function in influencing an audience beyond the immediate target.


If there is no authority higher than the state, why do governments ever abide by the pacts they make with each other? For some, the answer is simple: states only respect agreements that fulfill their immediate interests. Others are more optimistic. Some view compliance as a problem of enforcement, arguing that international inducements, reciprocity, concerns about reputation, and/or domestic politics/institutions regularly help sustain adherence. Others perceive compliance as a problem of capacity, or of poor management. Seen from this angle, mechanisms that “punish” through enforcement typically make matters worse; instead, treaties need to be transparent, as well as providing technical/financial assistance and solid dispute resolution. Still others emphasize the impact of social context, identity, and/or legitimacy. Governments keep their promises because they care how others perceive them, internalize norms, or view agreements as valid and fair. This article provides an overview of these perspectives, with a strong emphasis on recent developments, including findings from recent survey experiments.