Language and the War on Terror

A while ago, I think I mentioned on here that the BBC was no longer going to use the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” in their reporting (except when quoting someone.) The BBC explained this policy change by stating:

“We recognise the existence and the reality of terrorism – at this point in the twenty first century we could hardly do otherwise. Moreover, we don’t change the word “terrorist” when quoting other people, but we try to avoid the word ourselves; not because we are morally neutral towards terrorism, nor because we have any sympathy for the perpetrators of the inhuman atrocities which all too often we have to report, but because terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones…we should consider the impact our use of language may have on our reputation for objective journalism amongst our many audiences.”

After some consideration, I have come to the decision to follow the BBC’s lead. Again, this is not to deny the existence of terrorism, or its importance in security debates today. Rather, it is to recognize the analytical inadequacies of the term, and the hypocrisy and racism often employed in its use.

In terms of analytical inadequacy: basically every department of the U.S. government that deals with terrorism has a different definition. And that is just the U.S. When we are trying to describe terrorism events on a global level, the challenge of deciding on a concrete definition becomes even more daunting. Common elements include the use of violence or the threat of violence to try and coerce political, social, or economic change. However, the term has also often been co-opted to try and quash legitimate political dissent.

The result has often been the same approach to terrorism as the Supreme Court took to pornography: the idea that you know it when you see it. The problem is, all too often we only seem to know and see it when it is committed by Muslims and/or people of color.

So the term is often applied in a discriminatory fashion. Beyond that, it often functions as a catchall phrase for political violence committed by people with whom we disagree. And when we do that, it often means that any act of violence we do not support constitutes a failure in the global war on terror, which is used in turn to justify ever-greater encroachments on human rights and civil liberties around the world in pursuit of an impossible victory against what is ultimately a tactic, not an actual enemy.


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