It’s time to define terror

By Eoin Molloy


(original terror)

Apparently, rowdy Irish students are now also terrorists. Rita Vohra, the landlady whose apartment was wrecked by Irish J1 students in San Francisco, told CBS News that what happened was an ‘act of terrorism’ on her person. Whoa.

Since 9/11, the word ‘terrorism’ has rarely been out of the news. Studies have found over 100 possible meanings for this oft mis-used word. As it is hard to find a precise and binding legal definition, the word has been diluted and reduced to the point where pretty much anyone can be labelled a ‘terrorist’ by the media, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Defined by the FBI as ‘the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives,’ the word ‘terrorism’ has become somewhat of a buzz-word in the modern age.

As it was brought into our vocabulary through the emotive rhetoric of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Twin Towers’ disaster, it is unsurprising that the word itself has become super-charged with emotional and political context.

The loaded nature of the word is dangerous. It has a certain political value. For this reason, news pundits like Sean Hannity of Fox News tend to drop the ‘T’ bomb whenever they want to win an argument. He recently accused Russell Brand of being a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ after the English comic expressed solidarity for the embattled civilian population of Palestine.

Terror is far from new. You would have to jump back 200 odd years to find the first official usage of the word. In 1793, the National Convention in post-revolution France declared that ‘terror is the order of the day.’ This period became known as the ‘Reign of Terror’ in France. Maximillien Robespierre, terrorist-in-chief of the French revolution, described terror as ‘nothing more than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.’ Therefore, it is not even clear if there is a definite distinction between state terror and regular old civilian terror.

The meaning of the word is constantly changing; there is a certain flexibility to it. Ergo, its meaning is always contextual. One man’s terrorist may be another man’s freedom fighter, and vice versa.

Take Operation Cyclone, for example. As part of this covert operation, 20 billion in US funds were smuggled into Afghanistan to help fund the Taliban in their war against the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989. The US House Intelligence Committee billed the Taliban as freedom fighters, nobly struggling against the evils of Communism.

Critics assert that the foundations of al-Qaida were created from this lavish nest egg of American money. Needless to say, the US views al-Qaida as a terrorist organisation, begging the question, at what point does a freedom fighter become a terrorist? Probably around about the time that said fighters stop fighting to better the interests of the United States.

Labelling someone a terrorist can have seriously dangerous consequences. Under section 412 of the USA PATRIOT Act, a ‘terror suspect’ can be detained indefinitely without trial in an institution like Guantanamo Bay. Under this logic, shouldn’t the Irish J1 students be rotting away in Guantanamo with other Yemeni and Afghan ‘terror suspects’? Obviously not, but the fact that the word has no clear definition could easily lead to the wrongful detention of an innocent person.

The other problem with the mis-use of the word ‘terrorism’ is that it follows seemingly racial lines. The media tends to equate acts of terror only with those of Middle-Eastern complexion.

Take the Santa Barbara shooting earlier this year, where Elliott Rodger killed six people in a shooting spree before eventually turning the gun on himself. According to the media this was mass-murder and the perpetrator was a deranged woman-hater. By any standards, this was an act of terrorism.

Similarly, Christopher Dorner, an LA police officer and former US navy reserve officer went on a shooting spree in early 2013, targeting police officers and their families. The attacks left three police officers dead and another three wounded. Dorner left behind a full manifesto outlining his motivations. The shootings were his own vigilante revenge against what he perceived to be corruption, brutality and racism in the force.

His shootings clearly had some element of political motivation, yet there were not labelled as terrorism. Had he survived the ensuing stand-off with LA police, it seems likely that he would have been charged with criminal murder instead of terrorism.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dzokhar Tsarnev was tried under terrorism legislation. This is in spite of the fact that we have next to no evidence that the Boston Bombings were politically-motivated at all. Tsarnev, interestingly enough, was also charged with the possession of a ‘weapon of mass destruction’, showing again the connection between terrorism legislation and the advanced rhetoric of the Bush years.

All of this is not to say that the issue of terrorism is not one that should be side-lined. However, the over-use of the word could have dangerous implications down the road. There is a definite need to give a definite and lasting international legal definition to terrorism. This definition will surely be needed to avoid a purge like McCarthy’s red scare of the 1950s. For now, the word remains a free-for-all for any and all who wish to evoke an emotional response.


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