Sunday, February 21, 2010

What definition of Terrorism?

As usual Glenn Greenwald of captures my sentiments much better than I can sum up.

All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity. It has really come to mean: "a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies." That's why all of this confusion and doubt arose yesterday over whether a person who perpetrated a classic act of Terrorism should, in fact, be called a Terrorist: he's not a Muslim and isn't acting on behalf of standard Muslim grievances against the U.S. or Israel, and thus does not fit the "definition." One might concede that perhaps there's some technical sense in which term might apply to Stack, but as Fox News emphasized: it's not "terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to . . . terrorism in that capital T way." We all know who commits terrorism in "that capital T way," and it's not people named Joseph Stack.

All of this would be an interesting though not terribly important semantic matter if not for the fact that the term Terrorist plays a central role in our political debates. It is the all-justifying term for anything the U.S. Government does. Invasions, torture, due-process-free detentions, military commissions, drone attacks, warrantless surveillance, obsessive secrecy, and even assassinations of American citizens are all justified by the claim that it's only being done to "Terrorists," who, by definition, have no rights. Even worse, one becomes a "Terrorist" not through any judicial adjudication or other formal process, but solely by virtue of the untested, unchecked say-so of the Executive Branch. The President decrees someone to be a Terrorist and that's the end of that: uncritical followers of both political parties immediately justify anything done to the person on the ground that he's a Terrorist (by which they actually mean: he's been accused of being one, though that distinction -- between presidential accusations and proof -- is not one they recognize).

If we're really going to vest virtually unlimited power in the Government to do anything it wants to people they call "Terrorists," we ought at least to have a common understanding of what the term means. But there is none. It's just become a malleable, all-justifying term to allow the U.S. Government carte blanche to do whatever it wants to Muslims it does not like or who do not like it (i.e., The Terrorists). It's really more of a hypnotic mantra than an actual word: its mere utterance causes the nation blindly to cheer on whatever is done against the Muslims who are so labeled.


  1. One could say that participants of the American Revolution and its founding fathers were terrorists. Then they became freedom fighters, and graduated to the status of Patriots. It all depends on if you are catchin, or pitchin. Some people just get tired of always catchin.

  2. This fits right into your thread.



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