This is an incredibly relevant question. According to Wikipedia (it’s a good definition even if not a qualified source, I promise), “Terrorism is the systematic use of violent terror as a means of coercion.” Let’s break this down a bit. “Systematic” means that it needs to be done in a particular, carefully planned way (according to a system, IE not arbitrary). “Use of violent terror” seems to mean that violence is inflicted to create terror in the victim. “Means of coercion” means that the act is done in order to make someone act a certain way. So, terrorism is a carefully planned usage of violence to inflict terror in a victim in order to make the victim act in a certain way. Seems simple enough.
Now, we know what terrorism is, but what acts are constituted as terrorist acts? I think we can all agree that the attack on 9/11 was a terrorist act. It was carefully planned, used violence to create terror in the United States, and was done to try to get the US out of various places in the Middle East. But it seems like the US government can also conduct terrorist attacks. Ironically, it seems like the war on terror is a terrorist act– it was systematic, it used violence to create terror in the terrorists, and was done to coerce terrorists into no longer attacking the US anymore.
This is not a post in defense of the people who conducted 9/11, or a criticism of the war on terror. This is simply a criticism of the way we use the word “terrorist” and a discussion about what the term means. It seems to apply to a lot more than just Islamic fundamentalists.