Civilized societies must stop using the word “terrorism” and its derivatives

Reblogged from Sinking Ark

In a recent post, I argued that language contained in the U.S. “terrorist” watch list provides for the criminalization of dissent in America, depending on who may be interpreting the definition of “terrorism” contained in that document.

As a follow up to that post, I propose that the word “terrorist” itself, and its derivatives (i.e. “terrorism” and the like), should no longer be used in civilized societies, either by governments or peoples. Why? Because when someone is a terrorist, the law no longer applies to them as it does other citizens. It is such an ambiguous word that it can be too easily applied to a broad swath of individuals. After all, what counts as terror? Depending on who’s interpreting “terrorism,” it can imply Islamist extremists, gang members, regular criminals, or just people who disagree with the government.

Labeling people “terrorists” is an easy way for the government to circumvent civil liberties. The inherent ambiguity of the word allows for too much room for abuse of power by those who just hate getting caught up in things like “laws” and “restrictions on power.”

Remember what 2001 was like?

It is easy to get lost in the present disarray of politics, especially those related to national security. I think that, for context, it is helpful to remember the moment in American history when “terrorism” became a word thrown around the dinner table much like “communism” had been during the cold war. Of course, I speak of Al-Qaeda’s attack on the twin towers during 9-11.

This was a frightening moment, and if you were old enough to recognize what was going on, these attacks were likely one of those times that will be forever etched into your memory. You will never forget where you were when America was attacked that day. No one really knew what was happening, but for one single fact: we were under attack by someone. When that attack would end, no one really knew, but these attacks seemed to come out of nowhere (even though, according to former senior NSA officials, the US had more than enough pieces of intelligence to learn about and prevent these attacks, and didn’t because they didn’t know how to handle bulk collection system they purchased in 2000, which was several times more expensive than the alternative), and that was pretty terrifying.

In the immediate aftermath of that fear, we rushed to determine and define who our enemies were, so that we could retaliate appropriately. That was, essentially, Al-Qaeda, supported by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But what was different about this threat was its amorphousness. We were not fighting “the Communists,” which could generally be associated with some geographic region. We knew where the Communists were, and we knew what they were: a political ideology that was, more or less, based in Moscow, the capital of a country, a state-entity. Our attackers on 9-11, however, were non-state entities. While they had support in the Afghan government, their organization sprawled across the Middle East and beyond, blending into the civilian population, making them extremely difficult to detect. It’s worth remembering how frightening this notion was back in 2001 – the idea that our enemies could be anywhere, even in our communities.

The problem, however, was that despite Al-Qaeda being our primary enemy and target, there were other extreme Islamic organizations that wished to do America harm as well (and some that didn’t want to do harm to America, but who were crazy and extreme nonetheless). So we needed a term for this amalgamation of enemies that could seemingly be anywhere. Since the aim of these myriad groups was to inflict damage in order to create a fearful society, the label used was, thus “terrorists.” Remember, this seemed to make sense at the time: a “terrorists” were people who wanted to create terror by causing us harm.

Who, exactly, was a terrorist? Well, it was hard to say exactly, but, you know, you’d recognize ’em when you saw one. By the logic of 2001, we could say for instance: Al-Qaeda, they were obviously terrorists. And Hezbollah. And Hamas. These were all groups that fit the general characterization, right? Extreme Muslim groups that wanted to do harm to American citizens or others abroad. This made sense then because we, the American public, made a logical leap and inferred a more narrow definition of the term “terrorist” than the word itself actually allows for. And, since these “terrorists” were not criminals, but enemies of America that we were at war with, normal due process that would usually be granted to Americans would (and this seemed obvious at the time) not be necessary when dealing with “terrorists.”

The problem is, as time has progressed, what we thought “terrorist” meant was not actually the definition being used, in secret, by our government. And herein lies the problem with the word: all it really means is “one who causes terror.” It is far too broad, too ambiguous, and can too easily be applied to groups of individuals who simply fall into the “government doesn’t like” category. And, since due process is not required when dealing with “terrorists,” when a new person or group of people is labeled as “terrorists” or – and here’s the real threat this word poses – suspected terrorists, they are treated much differently by intelligence and law enforcement agencies than, say, suspected criminals.

The slippery slope

As I discussed in my prior post, the secret definition of “terrorism” being used by the US government is so broad that it includes “damage to property.” I imagine this is not the type of activity or crime that you generally associate with this word. And why not? Because different people’s interpretation of “terror” is different, and therefore any functionally useful definition for “terrorism” must be sufficiently broad to catch all of these different terror-inducing tactics.

But how broad of a definition are we willing to entertain? Rape or attempted murder are unquestionably terror inducing activities. Does that mean someone convicted of rape should be labeled a terrorist? If yes, what does that imply about his right to due process? After all, those who are convicted of crimes are not guilty of crimes. That whole “innocent until proven guilty” is supposed to ensure that individuals’ rights are not taken from them until it is proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are in fact guilty.

However, suspected terrorists have been thrown in Guantanamo bay for years without an indictment or a charge, and, according to military defense attorneys attorneys, are incapable of receiving a fair trial. The only thing that justifies such actions are the fact that these inmates are not suspected criminals but rather suspected terrorists, and therefore in the minds of many (although certainly not all) it’s okay to treat them differently. After all, if we’re at war with terrorism, then all terrorists are our enemies, and our enemies shouldn’t have due process. Right?

“Terrorism” obviously entails criminal acts, but selectively using the word terrorism implies that ordinary crime is not terrifying.

And this is the logical disconnect that can allow the word to be applied far too broadly, depending on what the user of the word thinks classifies as sufficiently “terror” inducing. The risk of definitional creep is so great as to be dangerous even for the beneficent user of the word. Just consider the following example:

  • Boston Bombing? 3 killed. Terrorism.
  • Newton school shooting. Over 20 killed. Not terrorism.

Why? Well, one’s a bomb, so that’s scary. But so is getting shot at. What’s different? Perhaps that a bomb is a novel threat – we aren’t as accustomed to it, and it’s more unusual. Less people were killed, so while it was less deadly, it caused an incredible amount of property damage. So, should the definition for terrorism be high levels property damage? Or just novelty of the killing method? If so, would an explosion that destroyed a building but killed no one be terrorism? Or just arson?

Arguably, these definitional issues would present less of a problem if suspected “terrorists” were not treated materially different than suspected criminals. If suspected “terrorists” are not provided the same rights or due process as suspected criminals, then what happens if less novel crimes begin to fall within the overly broad definition for “terrorism” currently being used by the government? For one, it makes many law enforcement agents’ jobs a lot easier. If you can find a way to classify one of your potential surveillance targets as a suspected “terrorist,” rather than criminal, then you don’t need to collect as much evidence to justify that surveillance, and you can then add them to a watch list without having to first uncover “concrete facts” (yes, you read correctly: agents do not need “concrete facts” to add US citizens to the “terrorist” watch list), or whatever else the law lets you do to suspected terrorists that it prohibits you from doing to suspected criminals.

However, law enforcement agents’ jobs are not supposed to be easy. That’s the whole point of the 4th amendment. If the government is going to intrude on a private citizen’s life then it must have reasonable evidence that warrants the minimization of that person’s civil liberties, and it must be approved by an (supposedly) independent judiciary. But, that’s hard! Suspected “terrorists,” on the other hand, can be monitored without judiciary approval, based on little more than a single intelligence agent’s whim.

Such a loophole, which fundamentally skirts Constitutionally guaranteed protections, will inevitably lead to it being used increasingly as the rule rather than the exception because, among other reasons, it is easier for intelligence agents to do so. And we must not forget that intelligent agents are human beings too. And working’s hard. It sucks. So why not take a step that makes life a little easier, even if it means skirting a few technicalities (read: Constitutional protections).

Civilized societies should stop using the word terrorism

I therefore propose that, because the word “terrorist” and its derivatives allow government actors to too easily ignore protections guaranteed to the people, that it stop being used in civilized societies. In reality, there are no “terrorists.” There is Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Khorasan, Hamas and Hezbollah. And while it may be easier to ignore what distinguishes these groups from one another (after all, learning about things is difficult, and American Idol XVII is coming on in a half hour), arbitrarily calling them all “terrorist” organizations obfuscates rather than clarifies the specific intent of each of these groups.

History shows us that untrustworthy leaders will justify violence against their people by calling them terrorists. This couldn’t happen if we, the people, refuse to accept “terrorism” as a worthwhile justification for, well, anything. This way, if our government wanted to, say, clamp down on our privacy rights, they would have to explain why. “Terrorism” would not suffice. If they wanted to invade a new country, they must explain the imminent national security threat. “Terrorism” would not suffice. Suddenly it becomes a lot harder for the government to justify a lot of what it wants to do. And that’s the point.

Next time you hear someone throw the word “terrorist” around, stop them and ask them to clarify what, exactly, they mean. You may be surprised to find that their definition is quite different than yours. And that should discomfort you.

4 thoughts on “Civilized societies must stop using the word “terrorism” and its derivatives

  1. Great editorial with which I concur. It should be noted that American revolutionaries were labeled as “terrorists” by King George III. And, in addition to the aforementioned Islamist groups, the Department of Homeland Security listed the right-wing extremist Sovereign Citizens movement the nation’s top domestic terrorist threat earlier this year. Although, this news got scant coverage from the mainstream media.

  2. This is a very interesting idea you propose. While I am not sure if we should stop using the word “terrorist” completely, you do make some great points about how the word represents a slippery slope. The American government needs to be more careful about who it defines as a terrorist instead of using it as a blanket term for anyone it sees as even a vague threat. But at the moment, there isn’t much thought being put into much of what the government does.

  3. I think the same concept could be applied more broadly. The way we as society demonize certain people in our society by applying labels to them. It further vilifies, dehumanizes, and causes more anger against individuals. That said I do think there is acts of terrorism and Boston and Newtown I consider both acts of terrorism. Though as you said the definition of what is terrorism means different things to different people. Whatever we choose to call such acts of violence against people outside of self defense should continue to be treated as a serious crime.

    • Why not just call them violent crimes? Where does terrorism – crimes that invoke terror that deserve to restrict the accused of their civil rights – stop and mere violent crimes – that no doubt also cause great terror in the afflicted – begin?

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