Tuesday, April 22, 2014

T is for TERRORISM (#atozchallenge)

Have you noticed? Many people who use this word don't seem to be able to formulate a viable definition of it. 

Either this word "terrorism" has an objective meaning or it doesn't. 


Responsible journalists, lawmakers, and policy makers shouldn't use language that expands and contracts on demand, in Orwellian fashion. Yet there is a long list of public figures in these categories who have a history of using language in just that way. Congressman Peter King, for instance, has a definition of "terrorism" that includes Al-Qaeda but excludes the Irish Republican Army.




If the word doesn't have any objective meaning, then perhaps we shouldn't use it at all in policy, legal, or journalistic environments. Is it asking too much of government officials, lawmakers, and reporters that they be able to describe what they actually mean when they use the word "terrorist"?

By the same token, if the word "terrorist" does have an objective meaning, we should be precise in our usage of it. So: What do I mean by "precise"? I mean that we should apply the word "terrorist" consistently to those people whose actions merit the use of that word. 

Not their nationality, not their mental state, not their religion -- their actions.

If we were to adopt a definition of "terrorism" that says "Terrorism is the intentional wounding or killing of civilians in order to achieve a political or military objective," and if we were to apply that standard consistently, then we would be on the path toward precision in our usage of the word. 

A note from our sponsor: Terrorism, as I have defined it, is forbidden by Islam.




Notice that the definition I am proposing doesn't say, "Terrorism is the intentional wounding or killing of civilians in order to achieve a political or military objective with which I, the speaker, disagree."

That definition would take us out of the realm of objective meaning.  I might use that definition to label someone as a terrorist who would not be a terrorist to you. Or vice versa. We would be talking past each other, possibly forever, under this definition. It would be like me saying, "A square inch is that quantity of space which feels square-inch-like to me." We wouldn't promote any kind of rational discussion.

Moving on. The individual pictured below (now dead) had the political and military goal of expelling US military forces from the Arabian peninsula, and he killed civilians in pursuit of that objective. Now, understand, we're not talking about scale here. We're just talking about what category he belongs in. 



Q. Was he a terrorist? 

a) No, because no one is a terrorist.
b) No, because he had a complex personal history, job-related stress, and/or psychological problems that made his true goals obscure.
c) No, because the word "terrorist" is impossible to define.
d) No, because no one of his nationality could be a terrorist.
e) Yes, because he killed civilians while committed to the pursuit of a political and/or military goal.

Ask 100 sane people this question, and I suspect all 100 will choose response e). That's my response, and I hope it's yours, too. 

Notice that we don't conduct all kinds of in-depth psychological analysis on why this individual, whose very name disgusts me, acted in the way he did. He had a complex personal history. Yet his complex personal history doesn't have anything to do with whether or not he was a terrorist. And using that personal history to justify or excuse his actions would insult the memory of his victims and insult the surviving family members.

If you doubt anything I've said in the paragraph above, ask yourself: Would the nineteen people who executed the mission that flew jet planes into the World Trade Center not be terrorists ... if they could be shown to have endured significant stress in the months before the attacks?

Again. This is all about action.

Moving on. The individual pictured below (now in jail) was part of a military unit tasked with the political and military goal of subduing the Taliban in Afghanistan. He confessed to killing sixteen Afghan civilians on the night of March 11, 2012, including nine children. At least one of those children was only two years old.




Q. Was he a terrorist? 

a) No, because no one is a terrorist.
b) No, because he had a complex personal history, job-related stress, and/or psychological problems that made his true goals obscure.
c) No, because the word "terrorist" is impossible to define.
d) No, because no one of his nationality could be a terrorist.
e) Yes, because he killed civilians while committed to the pursuit of a political and/or military goal.

This is where the discussion gets a little dicey for some people. 

They either change the subject, or they start advocating for some different option in the list of possible responses. These instincts, I have noticed, can be very strong.

Of course, there is a case to be made for showing patience, tact, and compassion to people who have those instincts. I would submit, however, that following the desire to change the subject, or following the desire to come up with a new list of possible responses, or following the desire to set a different standard for Americans, comes at a cost: Admitting that you are using the word "terrorist" in a way that promotes political propaganda over reasoned discourse.

This subject, a big one, is one I examine through the lens of fiction in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.