“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me”; we’ve all heard the familiar nursery rhyme designed to cheer up child victims of verbal bullying by reminding them that at least they weren’t battered with rocks. In fact, many people would agree that physical actions have more severe consequences than words, which are seen as abstract and immaterial in nature.
Words, as building blocks of our communication, often have immense powers to construct our perceived reality
To believe this however, is to naively assume words are merely descriptive. Words, as building blocks of our communication, often have immense powers to construct our perceived reality, influence our actions, and even create identity categories.
Let us analyse a significant word in our vocabulary today. ‘Terrorism’ is a poorly defined term, to say the least; as a matter of fact there is no standard, agreed-upon definition for what constitutes a terrorist attack. It has its roots in the French Revolution where people used it to describe violence carried out with the purpose of gaining or holding political power. During colonial times it resurfaced when colonial leaders branded anti-imperialist movements as terrorist groups. Google the word terrorism and you will notice it has never been more ubiquitous than it is today. Yet its meaning is so fuzzy that even federal governments or the UN have been unable to agree on anything except that it vaguely involves intimidating acts of violence for a political purpose.
there is no standard, agreed-upon definition for what constitutes a terrorist attack
Due to its imprecise nature many, including Barack Obama and Tarik Kafala (head of BBC Arabic), avoid using the word “terrorism” especially in conjunction with “Islamic”. Even BBC’s editorial guidelines suggest the word “terrorist” be used with caution, that it can be “a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”, and recommend more precise language such as “gunman”, “attacker”, or “insurgent”. People holding such a conviction open themselves up to criticism, demands that they use the word, and insinuations that they are siding with the perpetrators. This provides us with the crux of the term “terrorism”; it triggers an emotional reaction and, as such, its meaning is dependent on the emotional response we ascribe. This is why attacks in Europe are labeled as terrorist bombings whilst those in the Middle East are insurgent killings. It goes beyond our need to describe incidents; after all, everyone understands murder or shootings, but using emotionally loaded terms helps create a hierarchy of suffering, murder that is worse than other murders.
The word “terrorist/m” is a label employed with the clear intention to characterize and achieve something, but what? Here is where we get theoretical, specifically Foucauldian. Power relations are shaped through discourses, and dominant discourses like terrorism cause public debate to be conducted with the language, ideas and terms belonging to it. In simpler terms, it is very hard to escape it and produce alternative ideas. Hegemonic actors such as politicians and the media influence collective consciousness, so attention should be paid when they stress loss, anger, outrage and vengeance in their responses.
Power relations are shaped through discourses, and dominant discourses like terrorism cause public debate to be conducted
The politically biased discourse took front stage after the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. The reaction was one of labels (think “War on Terror”), international condemnation (Iran, North Korea, Iraq part of “axis of evil”), and calls to arms in the name of protecting ‘democratic values’. Taking a look at the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations illustrates the political motivations behind it all – countless Palestinian groups are present, yet not a single Israeli group (of which there are plenty) has been included. Also, we should consider how certain attacks that fit the usual criteria for a terrorist attack, but are not labelled as such; for example the 2015 mass shooting carried out in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina by Dylann Roof, whose express purpose was to start a ‘race war’.
This creates a unique kind of reality that DEMONISED entire nations and ethnic groups
This creates a unique kind of reality that demonised entire nations and ethnic groups, whilst also allowing governments to push for exceptional measures. Inciting fear in the hearts of the masses allows for justifying breaches of privacy, indefensible military invasions, wars, illegal imprisonment, torture, and a whole slew of actions we would otherwise consider as breaching our values. Additionally, this leads to real-life discrimination of ethnic minorities; spikes in hate crimes have been shown after polarizing news coverage on topics like terror attacks, Brexit, the refugee crisis, or the 2016 US election.
Such emotionally inflammatory environments are not coincidental; they are the logical result of rhetoric that insinuates Muslims are inherently violent and pits the ‘West’ against ‘Islam’, ‘us’ against ‘them’. As New Republic published after 9/11, “Anybody who hates modernity hates America. Anybody who hates freedom hates America”. Simplistic thinking of this nature not only leads to animosity but is a convenient scapegoat that politicians, the media, and the public employ to avoid self-reflection.
the language used implies that the ‘West’ is an innocent entity minding its own business
The language used implies that the ‘West’ is an innocent entity minding its own business instead of a hegemony constantly embroiled in international violence, taking advantage of religious/ethnic ignorance and hostility to further its own material or political interests. Therefore, we need to break down these discourses and get past the smokescreen preventing us from facing reality. On a similar note, reducing groups like ISIS to irrational terrorists, prevents us from understanding how they operate, what their goals/motivations are and, ultimately, how to defeat them.
Sadly it seems that we are a long way away from disposing of “terrorism”, a loaded term that has been weaponised for politically biased ends. According to the Independent, some schools in London are conducting classes teaching students what to do in the event of “Islamist terror plots”; such schemes are reminiscent of Cold War era fear tactics. Continuing demonisation of refugees through insinuations that they could be terrorists infiltrating our countries, and white supremacist movements across the US and Europe paint a disappointing picture of our near future. A key feature of poisonous discourses is that they trap you into continuing to use their language; in the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. So let us move on and try something different, because what we’ve been doing so far isn’t working.