Words as weapons: Dropping the 'terrorism' bomb

Words as weapons: Dropping the 'terrorism' bomb

Words can be weapons, too. So after nearly every new report of political violence, whether merely plotted or actually carried out, there is a vocabulary debate: Should it be labelled ‘terrorism’?

When early reports of Maj Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting spree at Fort Hood, in November mentioned his personal problems and failed to apply the T-word, activists on the right cried foul: He’s a radical Muslim terrorist, they said, and only political correctness run amok could argue otherwise.

When A Joseph Stack III flew his Piper Dakota into an internal revenue service office building in Austin, in February, killing himself and an IRS manager, it was the left that blew the linguistic whistle: If such a public, politically motivated act of lethal violence is not terrorism, they asked, just what is?

Last week, the arrests of nine members of the Hutaree Christian sect in Michigan on charges that they plotted to kill police officers and then bomb their funerals stirred up the question again.

Were they terrorists? Were they Christians? Were they just weirdos? Had they been Muslims, some commentators complained, there would have been not a moment’s hesitation at applying both names: Islamic terrorism.

“None dare call it terrorism,” wrote David Dayen at the liberal Firedoglake blog, noting that most of the major media outlets had not used the word ‘terrorism’ in reporting the Hutaree arrests for plotting exactly that. “These are Christians, so they cannot be terrorists. Or something,” he added, with sarcasm.

At Lucianne Goldberg’s conservative website, Lucianne.com, a contributor calling himself kanphil rejected the labels: “Not Christians. Not terrorists. Just dimwits that couldn’t organise a decent deer hunt.”

The right-left squabbles are an attempt to spin violence for political advantage. If Major Hasan was a Muslim terrorist, the right’s logic goes, then oversensitivity to the rights of Muslims is unjustified and the tough security measures of the Dick Cheney school are validated. If the Hutaree are government-fearing, right-wing Christians, the left suggests, then perhaps there is reason to be wary of the extremism of other anti-government, conservative Christians, whether of the Tea Party or plain Republican Party variety.

But more is at stake here than semantics or petty point-scoring in the blogosphere. Political violence has two elements: the act, and the meaning attached to it. Long after the smoke of an explosion has cleared, the battle over language goes on, as contending sides seek to aggrandise the act or dismiss it, portray it as noble or denounce it as vile.
“The use of the term terrorism delegitimises the opponent,” said Martha Crenshaw, a scholar at Stanford who wrote her first essay wrestling with the definition of terrorism in 1972. “It’s not just the tactics that are discredited, it’s the cause, as well.”

In fact, accused terrorists often throw the label back at their accusers. In a recording played in court last week, David B Stone Sr, leader of the Hutaree group, described the government as a ‘terrorist organisation’. And Doku Umarov, the Chechen guerrilla leader who claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings in the Moscow subway, took the same line in a videotaped message, suggesting that the real terrorist was his nemesis, Vladimir V Putin, the Russian prime minister.

The origin

The word originated in the context of large-scale violence by the state: the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, when 16,000 to 40,000 people were killed in 13 months. The Latin root ‘terrere’ means “to cause to tremble,” and one essential notion in most definitions of terrorism is that it seeks to frighten the enemy, as well as to inspire allies.

Over time, terrorism has come to be applied more commonly to the violent tactics of nonstate groups, often in a campaign of repeated attacks. The targets are often chosen for symbolic reasons (the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon), and the victims usually include civilians. The acts of terror seek to influence an audience, ostensibly in service of a political goal.

The anarchist movement before and after the turn of the 20th century spoke of the ‘Propaganda of the Deed’, a phrase that captures both the violence and its purported political purpose. Their deeds included the assassination of numerous politicians and world leaders, including President William McKinley in 1901, and they were the rare militants who did not shun the terrorism label.

“They called themselves terrorists and they were proud of it,” said David C Rapoport, editor of ‘Terrorism and Political Violence’.

With time, however, the term terrorism took on connotations of cowardice, unfairness and special brutality, whatever the larger cause it claims to serve. Today even the most brazen of terrorists generally shun the label. In a recent audio message, Osama bin Laden described Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief planner of the Sept 11 attacks, as a ‘holy warrior and hero’.

Major Hasan, by the standard definition, would qualify as a terrorist. Whatever his emotional troubles, he appears to have viewed his killings as part of the larger global campaign of Muslims fighting what they view as American aggression.

Likewise, though Joe Stack certainly had his personal gripes against the IRS, the six-page manifesto he left behind suggested that he was dying for the cause of freedom in a blow against ‘Mr Big Brother IRS man.’

True, both men seem to have been eccentrics and sociopaths. But so are many who all agree are terrorists — remember Mohammed Atta, with his creepy list of instructions for how his body should be handled after death? By choosing, in their despair, not just solo suicide but an attack against others, and by attaching their violence to a political point of view, they earned the label.

From the debate over word choice came the adage that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” a cliché already by the 1980s. “That’s a catchy phrase, but also misleading,” President Ronald Reagan said in a 1986 radio address. But distinguishing these points is not always easy: Major Hasan targeted military forces; Stack surely considered the IRS an “organised instrument of repression.”

Thinking of ends and not means, Reagan praised the Nicaraguan contra rebels, who had a bloody record fighting the Communist Sandinistas, as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” In the cold war contest with the Soviet Union, he armed and embraced the Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ and their Arab allies, some of whom evolved into the terrorists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

That long-ago radio address sounds naïve in retrospect in another respect, too. “History is likely to record that 1986 was the year when the world, at long last, came to grips with the plague of terrorism,” President Reagan declared. President Obama is unlikely to venture a similar prediction anytime soon.