Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Author of Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism (2021)

Calling terrorism by name

CJ arrived at earth from another galaxy to visit the US and the UK. CJ acquaint itself with the two countries by reading the BBC, The Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post. People asked CJ of its first impressions. CJ replied that it was impressed by the standard of living, diversity and innovation. It did not like to read about wars and that it was surprised that terrorism does not exist on earth.

Indeed, if you read only these four very important media outlets, the word terror is not mentioned. Hamas that committed one of the most atrocious terror attacks in history is called ‘militant’ and its terrorists are named ‘gunmen’ and, astonishingly, ‘fighters’.

I asked senior BBC editors why they don’t call a spade a spade. Their answer was that there is no agreed international definition of terrorism (this, unfortunately, is true), the term is controversial and contested, that one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and that they do not wish to alienate any segment of their broad audience across the world.

I reminded the BBC editors that the BBC Charter speaks of sustaining citizenship and civil society. Accordingly, BBC reporters do not need to feel obliged to be neutral as between justice and injustice, between compassion and cruelty. Being a constitutional creation of Parliament, the BBC could not and should not be impartial towards crude violence against innocent civilians.

The idea that one person’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’ is a bad cliché that cannot be sanctioned. Freedom fighters don’t kidnap children, fire rockets on civilian targets and blow-up civilian buses. Terrorist murderers do. Freedom fighters don’t set out to capture and slaughter children, women and elderly people. Terrorist murderers do. Freedom fighters don’t hold hostage innocent men, women, and children. Terrorist murders do. It is a disgrace that journalists and editors would apply no moral judgment and associate the term ‘freedom’ with acts of terror. Reporters and editors who refrain from calling terror by name employ no moral judgment, thus paying homage to moral relativism. To remain morally neutral and ‘objective’ toward terrorism and to sympathize with terrorist acts is to betray professional responsibility as well as ethics and morality. Objectivity should be rejected in cases presenting ideas sharply opposed to humanity, which sanctify brutality and indiscriminate violence.

Furthermore, by their erroneous policy, these media outlets legitimise terror. Intelligent editors do not have to behave like diplomats and politicians. Indeed, normally they do not. Decent people understand that it is wrong to call those who behead babies, rape women and set civilian homes with their residents on fire ‘fighters’. While there is no agreed upon definition of terror, the components of terror are well established. Terror is about the threat and use of violence against civilians for ideological, political or religious reasons. If people, any people – Jews, Muslim, Christian and others – do this, then they are terrorist. Calling terrorism by name is the journalist’s professional duty and responsibility. Avoiding using the term when it is warranted is irresponsible, unprofessional and wrong. Journalists have professional and civilian duty to support those who fight terror and enable them to carry their professional duty.

Conversely, attacks against military targets would not be called terrorist. Those who carry such attacks should be rightly called ‘militants’, ‘fighters’ and ‘gunmen’. However, people who aim to kill and maim civilians are terrorists and their actions are morally reprehensible.

The BBC, The Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post should reconsider their “world without terrorism” policy. Unfortunately, we do not live in La La Land. Terrorism does exist. We are reminded of its brutal manifestations time and again. These influential media organisations should acknowledge this and not play into the hands of terrorism.

About the Author
Raphael Cohen-Almagor received his doctorate from Oxford University. He taught and conducted research at the faculties of law of the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, UCLA, University of Hull, Nirma University (India) and University College London. He is President of The Association for Israel Studies (AIS). Raphael is now writing Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Critical Study of Peace Mediation, Facilitation and Negotiations between Israel and the PLO (Cambridge University Press, 2025). X: @almagor35
Related Topics
Related Posts