Selective use of the word ‘terrorism’

‘Terrorism’ has now become a word without much meaning except to be brandished as a political weapon. Witness the absurd fuss in the US over the fact that president Obama initially referred to the Benghazi attacks as an ‘act of terror’ as opposed to ‘terrorism’. In the wake of the recent ghastly murder of British soldier, Glenn Greenwald revisits the question of the selective use of the word, and of what causes some acts to be labeled as terrorism and others not.

I know this vital caveat will fall on deaf ears for some, but nothing about this discussion has anything to do with justifiability. An act can be vile, evil, and devoid of justification without being “terrorism”: indeed, most of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, from the Holocaust to the wanton slaughter of Stalin and Pol Pot and the massive destruction of human life in Vietnam, are not typically described as “terrorism”. To question whether something qualifies as “terrorism” is not remotely to justify or even mitigate it. That should go without saying, though I know it doesn’t.

The reason it’s so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms – if there are any – that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that “terrorism” provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It’s a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target them for execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world. It matters what the definition of the term is, or whether there is a consistent and coherent definition. It matters a great deal.

There is ample scholarship proving that the term has no such clear or consistently applied meaning (see the penultimate section here, and my interview with Remi Brulin here). It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, operationally, the term has no real definition at this point beyond “violence engaged in by Muslims in retaliation against western violence toward Muslims”. When media reports yesterday began saying that “there are indications that this may be act of terror”, it seems clear that what was really meant was: “there are indications that the perpetrators were Muslims driven by political grievances against the west” (earlier this month, an elderly British Muslim was stabbed to death in an apparent anti-Muslim hate crime and nobody called that “terrorism”). Put another way, the term at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states.

In his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell described how politicians corrupt language by using it to obscure and confuse rather than clarify.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Some of the words in Orwell’s list may no longer belong, such as: realistic, justice, class, science, and equality. But I think we can safely add ‘terrorism’ to it.


  1. mnb0 says

    It always has been that way. Dutch right wing paper De Telegraaf always branded the ANC as a terrorist group in the 70’s.
    To counterbalance: exactly as predicted by Orwell Dutch leftists did the same with the word fascism.
    Of course creacrappers try to twist the meaning of the word science.

  2. Pen says

    I think this one’s already going down in history as the ‘Woolwich Murder’. Perhaps there is hope for reason after all.

  3. says

    The definition I always liked for ‘terrorism’ is the old one the FBI used before they got afraid of its consequences: “Terrorism is using violence and intimidation against civilians, in an attempt to alter a political process that you’re not participating in.” I think it’s important because it delineates actions taken outside of a political process, rather than simply ‘scary stuff people do.” It’s also interesting because that definition excludes religious nuttery – killing some guy at random because: god – doesn’t really try to change any political system in any significant way. Crucial to this idea is that it’s violence with an agenda. You know, like the US drone strikes in Pakistan: that’s “terrorism.”

  4. sailor1031 says

    It has long been the case that any nation that has the word ‘democratic’ in its name is ipso facto a ruthless dictatorship or oligarchy.

  5. garnetstar says

    If Orwell were writing today, he’d have to add “family”, “values”, “Judeo-Christian”, and combinations thereof, to the list.

  6. says

    Thanks for the pointer to Orwell. That was enlightening in that much as I admire Greenwald, he is also a member of our times. Orwell’s comment from the past seems to be even more credible.

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