Subject Headings for Crimes and Trials Regarding Terrorism

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on cataloging issues – November 2015

By Shonn Haren, Wichita State University Libraries

Question: What subject headings are used to classify works dealing with crimes and trials regarding terrorism?

For individuals born in the past half century, the term “terrorism” conjures up a series of vivid, potent and deeply disturbing images. However, while terrorism has never had a positive connotation, its definition has shifted significantly over the past two centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first use of this term to 1796, a loan word based on the French terriorisme, meaning “The unofficial and unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims; (originally) such practices used by a ruling group . . . in order to maintain its control over a population”[1] in reference to the French First Republic’s reign of terror against its domestic enemies. This definition of terrorism, as the extra-legal actions of the state in repression against domestic opponents would remain virtually unchanged until the mid-20th Century.

Beginning in 1957, the OED records an alternate definition for terrorism, first used in reference to actions by Cypriot fighters during their struggle for independence from the British (1955-60) “[the unofficial and unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims] used by a clandestine or expatriate organization as a means of furthering its aims.”[2] In the intervening years, this definition of terrorism has become the more prevalent one, and the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) Terrorism (may subd. geog.) reflects this specific usage.

While the crimes performed in acts of terrorism (murder, kidnapping, arson, destruction of property, etc…) have long been covered under criminal law, specific laws dealing with acts of terror as a specialized class of crime do exist. For example, in the United States, terrorism as crime is addressed in 18 U.S.C. § 113B, first passed into law in 1990.[3] Thus, in certain jurisdictions terrorism may be tried as a specific crime within a court of law.

The cataloging of works dealing specifically with terrorism trials is addressed in the LCSH through use of the following heading:

  • Trials (Terrorism) (may subd. geog.)

As of the most recent printing of the LCSH (2013) only two specifically designated geographic subheadings have been listed:

  • Trials (Terrorism) – Italy
  • Trials (Terrorism) – Japan

In addition, there are two narrower subject headings available that directly reference specific terrorism trials:

  • Red Brigades Trial, Turin, Italy, 1978
  • Oumu Shinrikyo Trial, Tokyo, Japan, 1996

While these specific headings are useful in cataloging works dealing with these particular trials, the small amount of subject headings dealing with terror trials is noteworthy, particularly with the rise in high-profile terror attacks during the last two decades. This lack of examples may reflect the fact that the majority of these attacks were suicide attacks, in the which case there was no surviving defendant to prosecute, or that the defendants in these attacks were captured in the course of the United States “Global War on Terror” and that their prosecution has been hampered and delayed due to the legal ambiguities of their ongoing status as “enemy combatants.”

The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 are probably the most visible example of this trend. While the 19 hijackers directly responsible for the attacks died as a result of their actions, prosecutions of individuals involved in the planning, and funding of the attacks, most notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have been repeatedly postponed due to legal and procedural ambiguities connected to the circumstances of their capture, interrogation and detention.   Until such a time as an LCSH directly addressing trials of defendants in the September 11th attacks is created, the following subject headings may be used to describe works on this topic:

  • Trials (Terrorism) – United States
  • September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001.

However, at least two high profile terror attacks in the past 25 years have resulted in the capture of surviving defendants and their being brought to trial: the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Despite this, neither of these instances resulted in the creation of a specific LCSH addressing the trials following these attacks. While the reason for this lack of a subject heading is unclear, it may result from the majority of works published on these topics focusing primarily on the attacks themselves, instead of the resulting trial of the captured terrorists.

Due to the lack of a specific subject heading, works dealing with these trials may be cataloged as follows:

For the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing:

  • Trials (Terrorism) – United States
  • World Trade Center Bombing, New York, N.Y., 1993

For the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing:

  • Trials (Terrorism) – United States
  • Oklahoma City Federal Building Bombing, Oklahoma City, Okla., 1995

For the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing:

  • Trials (Terrorism) – United States
  • Boston Marathon Bombing, Boston Mass., 2013.

In addition, the following subject headings may also prove useful in cataloging works dealing with crimes and trials regarding terrorism:

  • Terrorism –Law and Legislation (may subd. geog.)
  • Terrorism – International Law (may subd. geog.)
  • Terrorism – Islamic Law (may subd. geog.)


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “terrorism,” (accessed September 11, 2015).

[2] Ibid. Emphasis is mine.

[3] “Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed September 11, 2015,