The Problem With “Terrorism”

Eric FreinI hate the words “terror” and “terrorism” and “terrorist.” They have lost all meaning. And even when the word “terrorist” had meaning, it was deceptive. Early in his career, Menachem Begin used terrorism as a tactic to achieve his political goals. Does that mean he was a terrorist when he signed a peace deal with Anwar Sadat? That is a conversation I’m willing to have. The problem is, that isn’t a conversation anyone in the mainstream media is interested in having.

So these words are just used as a kind of generic insult against people we don’t like. And, of course, it is generally a racial slur. Some would say it is a religious slur against Muslims. But the truth is that most Americans can’t tell the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh and a Hindu and even a radically nonviolent Jain. Truly, Americans are even likely to mistake Orthodox Christians for Muslims. It’s all “those” people — those foreigners who hate us for our freedoms.

Eric Boehlert over at Media Matters provided a good example of the problem with the word “terrorism,” A Cop Killing And A Beheading: How Fox News Picks And Chooses Its “Terrorism” Targets. It deals with the huge amount of coverage that murder suspect Alton Nolen has received on Fox News. Nolen was fired and then apparently committed a grisly murder, decapitating someone he had worked with. Nolen was also a Muslim, so Fox News has been all over it, calling the murder Islamic terrorism. Thus far, the FBI has found no evidence that it was an act of terror.

Alton NolenLet’s be clear here: terrorism is a military and political tactic. It isn’t just any heinous crime. The young man who shot all those kids and others at Sandy Hook was not a terrorist. He wasn’t trying to terrorize the region for some larger purpose. People do all kinds of terrible things without it being terrorism. On the other hand, Hamas’ generally impotent rocket attacks on Israel is terrorism. It is intended to create a climate of fear. (Note: I don’t think terrorism is necessarily any more reprehensible than the more “just” wars that wealthy peoples wage.)

But at the same time that Fox News and other right wing media outlets have been aggressively pushing the Nolen case, they have been mostly ignoring the case of Eric Frein, an anti-government extremist who shot two police officers (killing one), and who is still at large two weeks later. We can’t say for sure if this is an act of terrorism, but it is much more likely to fit the definition than what Nolen did. Boehlert described the man:

“He made statements about wanting to kill law enforcement officers and to commit mass acts of murder,” state police commissioner Frank Noonan warned the public at the time. Another official noted the shooter has a “longstanding grudge against law enforcement and government in general” dating back to at least 2006.

A friend was even more explicit. “He was obviously a big critic of the federal government,” a friend name Jack told CNN. (The friend did not give his last name.) “No indications of really any malice towards law enforcement in particular. Most of his aggression was (toward) the federal government.”

Sounds like homegrown, anti-government terrorism, right?

On that last point, I can’t really say. I know the type. It is the same kind of thinking that we saw from Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. I’m not really sure what it is that they are trying to accomplish. But there is no doubt about this: these acts are seen by their perpetrators as primarily political. So even if the intent is not meant to terrorize a population, it is a political act that does terrorize a population. Boehlert again:

Considered “extremely dangerous” and possibly armed with an AK-47, officials were forced to close local schools in fear Frein might attack again. Lots of businesses in the area were ordered to stay dark, and some US mail deliveries were suspended out of fear postmen might be exposed as possible targets for the shooter.

The point is that in the right wing media, a terrorist is (At best!) any Muslim who does or says something violent. Right wing extremists are almost never referred to as terrorists. Even the Oklahoma City bombing tends to be reduced to a horrible act perpetrated by bad people. If pressed, those on the right will admit that it was a terrorist act. But that’s an extreme bar. When white Christian guys kill 168 people, there is the reluctant admission that it is terrorism. But when a disgruntled ex-employee who is Muslim kills someone, it is terrorism until proven otherwise.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “The Problem With “Terrorism”

  1. Don’t know if you’ve read the aged Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin. I check him out every week; he has the kind of liberalism one sometimes hears from old people, angry at the jerks but hopeful overall. Here’s a recent piece on a Canadian citizen who has been connected to overseas terrorist movements:

    Terrorism is largely perpetrated by frustrated/deluded young men. (State terrorism, of course, is another matter, and maybe should be called by another name; perhaps “colonialism” or “war” would serve.) Any sane policy to combat it would acknowledge their frustrations (not their sometimes rational, often idiotic demands.) You can’t make a Timothy McVeigh less crazy, but you can alleviate the conditions (shitty job opportunities, a violent, militarized culture) that turn a painfully batshit soul like McVeigh into a terrorist instead of something harmlessly nuts like a trainspotter.

    It’s, as usual, head-smackingly stupid short-term thinking. We don’t see Islamic terrorists as frustrated young men who could be dissuaded from violence if they had more productive hopes for their future. We see them as Crazy Guys Threatening Our Oil. (I suspect even the bright, if ideologically confined, state officials and ambassadors and such think along these lines.)

    A hopeful thought to end on is that after our demonization of German-Americans in WW1 and Japanese-Americans in WW2, we quickly pretended our persecution of them never happened and welcomed them as fellow money-grubbing good Yanks with charmingly kooky food. It’s entirely possible for our country to forget our propaganda of the past; we do it all the time. This current demonization of Muslims could disappear as quickly as that. It could also persist, with predictably disastrous consequences.

    • I will check out the article when I’m back home. I’m kind of rushed (with 10 pre-written article to be dished out over the next two days). But I think you are quite right. I think that young men get into terrorism for much the same reason as they get into drugs. (I’m rereading Ceremonial Chemistry today.) Both are ways to find meaning, and (this is not broadly recognized), cure boredom. I’m sure that learning bomb making is really interesting. And I doubt that it is much different internally in the individual than guys I’ve know who obsessively clean their bongs.

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