Saturday, December 5, 2015

Defining "Terrorism": Don't Assume You Know What It Means

Incredibly, amidst all the Republican babble in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, it appears none of them even know what the term "terrorism" means. Of course, it's easy to bandy the word about to gain political leverage or exploit the ignorance of a population, and it serves a long standing interest for Rightists to take the public's eyes off gun control.

In point of fact, there is no single consensus definition of terrorism in federal law and regulation. USC Title 18 specifically defines "domestic terrorism" as:

"A violent act which is committed in the United States and attempts to intimidate or coerce".

The international definition is similar except it includes reference to the locales wherein  the perpetrators committed their fear - inspiring deeds or where they sought asylum.

Under the USC 18 definition, Robert Lewis Dear was definitely a terrorist because he committed his crime with the goal to instill fear or coerce the Colorado Springs community into no longer supporting Planned Parenthood. Conversely, the Newtown and the Aurora Theater massacres were not terrorism under the definition.

At the University of Leiden, two researchers found more than 200 definitions of terrorism scattered around the world. Most shared attributes of violence, political objectives, and causing outright fear. One historian, Walter Lacquer, summed up the differences this way:

"In the real world there is not one terrorism, but a variety of terrorisms. Any attempt to find a common denominator - a formula - say as suited to 19th century Irish terrorism as to narco-terror in Columbia, or Islamic terror in Pakistan is bound to fail"

This is because there will always be divergent emphases, as well as parameter and intenisty distinctions. Recall that in many quarters, the first reaction to the 9/11 attacks was to treat them as a major crime - not terror. It was only when the Bushies introduced the "war on terror" - which is a non sequitur - that terror became a ubiquitous dynamic. The problem is it holds too many in thrall who are prepared to cry 'Terror!' at the first suspicion.

This is misplaced because it makes us all subject to irrational political exploitation and reduces our power as citizens - collectively and individually. We certainly ought to be alert to recognize real actions of terrorists when they arise, but not to call 'Terror!' for everything we see.  As Chris Hayes put it three nights ago: "When everything is terror then the meaning is diluted to the point that we cease to recognize real terror.

That is useful to bear in mind as the calls for more 'wars on terror' heat up and the political Right, especially, attempts to use the word 'terror' as a cudgel to infringe on our civil liberties and misdirect our national priorities - as well as playing right into ISIS' fell hands by refusing Syrian refugees entry.

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