Our Warped Idea of Terrorism: It Only Applies to People Who Oppose America and Its Allies
The definition of terrorism seems simple enough. The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that it is “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”
But America’s leaders and corporate media have a radically different definition of terrorism.
“In the mainstream American media, the ‘terrorist’ label is usually reserved for those opposed to the policies of the U.S. and its allies,” Tomas Kapitan, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, recently wrote in a column for the New York Times. This terrorist label is usually slapped on Muslims, even when they use violence in the context of a war zone like the Gaza Strip over the summer.
Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. has waged a war on terror. But as the writer Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly pointed out, the tactic the U.S. is waging battle against has lost its fundamental meaning. In the eyes of the U.S. elite, terrorism today means an act of political violence carried out by Muslims opposed to U.S. foreign policy. When political violence is carried out by non-Muslims, a different label is used. And when the U.S. and its allies launch wanton attacks on civilians to achieve a political goal, it is justified by invoking the specter of “terrorism.” The U.S., it seems, feels free to use terrorism—in the dictionary sense of the word—to wage a war on terrorism. Just look at the indiscriminate drone strikes the U.S. has carried out in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, which have terrorized the civilian populations there in the name of fighting terrorism.
Recent acts of violence show this reality clearly.
On October 22, a Canadian man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a soldier guarding a war memorial in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. He moved into the Canadian Parliament and also fired shots. American news outlets quickly labeled the incident a terrorist act, though at the time they had no indication of what motivated the attacker. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also invoked terrorism when they denounced the attack.
In the days after the attack, the picture became hazier. U.S. and Canadian officials said that Zehaf-Bibeau was connected to people who had a “radical Islamist” ideology. But he also had a criminal record and suffered from mental illness. In a New Yorker column, the Canadian writer Heet Jeer noted that “Zehaf-Bibeau talked not just about an external battle but an internal struggle with demons, spiritual beings he felt had a real existence. That was a battle he was fighting in his own mind, which may have been the ultimate source of the violence that he inflicted on the world.”
Nevertheless, Zehaf-Bibeau was called a terrorist before these relevant facts came out, exposing the hollowness of the word terrorism.
The immediate labeling of the event in Canada as a terrorist attack stands in stark contrast to a violent incident on American soil that took place last June. Jerad and Amander Miller killed two police officers in Las Vegas before going into a Walmart, where they shot another person before being slain by police officers. The Miller couple were right-wing extremists. After killing the officers, the Millers covered one of the officers with a flag of the Nazi swastika and a yellow flag with the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”
By the classic definition of the word, the Millers were terrorists. But as the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi pointed out at the time, “few media accounts have described the Millers as terrorists or their actions as terrorism.”
In 2010, Andrew Stack crashed his plane into a building with Internal Revenue Service employees, killing one. He left behind an anti-government suicide note. The Department of Homeland Security’s initial statement on the attack said there was “no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity.”
Since 9/11, mainstream U.S. discourse has become saturated with fears over (Muslim) terrorism. It’s easy to forget that the government’s focus on terrorism is fairly new. Remi Brulin, a scholar whose work focuses on the discourse around terrorism, documented this history in a recent talk delivered at New York University.
Brulin explained that American government focus on terrorism as a problem came to the fore in 1972, after Palestinian militants killed Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich, Germany. In a memo explaining the U.S. position on a UN resolution condemning terrorism at that time, the State Department offered a narrow definition of the word. The department said that terrorism was an act of political violence that occurs in territory outside of the state where the perpetrator is from and outside the state that the act was directed against.
America’s narrow definition didn’t last long. By the Reagan era, U.S. officials had adopted the Israeli discourse. As Brulin has explained, this discourse posits that what separates terrorists from the civilized world is the valuing of innocent life. Taken at face value, it bears a close resemblance to the common understanding of the word. But “the Israeli discourse...has been fundamentally ideological. It has been the discourse of de-legitimization, and of de-humanization,” Brulin argues. Israel and the U.S. use the word terrorism to describe the political violence carried out by its enemies. But when those states carry out acts of violence at civilians or allow their allies to do so, the word terrorism does not come up in mainstream discussion.
Tomas Kapitan’s New York Times essay points to the 1982 massacre of thousands of civilians in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The perpetrators were Lebanese Phalangists, key Israeli allies. An Israeli investigative committee would later determine that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli defense minister at the time, bore “personal responsibility” for the attack and that he decided the Phalangists should be sent in to the camp. This was not thought of as terrorism, though. Instead, Israel’s commission of inquiry on the massacre only referred to Palestinian terrorists--a clear example of how the rhetoric of terrorism is exploited “to direct attention away from [states’] own acts of terror,” as Kapitan writes.
Terrorism is a politicized and racialized term. The words terrorism and terrorist are principally used to delineate which political actors can use violence legitimately and which cannot. In the realm of international politics, only Western states and their allies can use violence aimed at civilians to achieve political goals. But when Muslims do it, they are called terrorists and delegitimized, regardless of whether they were, in fact, using the tactics of terrorism.
If terrorism is to mean anything, the word should be used to describe all acts of political violence that target civilians. But if it’s not, “the whole analytical category of ‘terrorism’ needs to be abandoned," as Heet Jeer suggested on Twitter. Given the word’s use as a rhetorical weapon to justify state violence, the day when the category of terrorism is abandoned is far off.