Gedalyah Reback

Why even use the word “terrorism?”

Last week’s massacre in South Carolina was an act of terrorism, and the propensity for so many people not to see it that way indicates there is a major flaw in objectively using the term “terrorism” at all.

I keep seeing all these intellectual excuses to not call this man in South Carolina a terrorist. If you are going to use the term at all, this man is textbook.

Dylann Roof, if convicted of the crimes he is accused of, is definitely a terrorist. His crime is not exclusively a “hate crime.” It’s simple to figure this out, since the massacre fits both definitions.

The FBI demands three criteria to define something as “domestic terrorism.” Two are that 1) it involves acts that endanger human life and violate the law, and 2) occurs in the territorial jurisdiction of the US. The third criterion is that it does at least one of three things: influence government policy, affect government conduct, or “intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”

The last option is clearly the case here, by the killer’s own words.

But had he not said anything, it would be far less likely I’d be able to challenge anyone for inconsistent application of the term “terrorist” or “terrorism.”

I personally have avoided using the term because its application is typically arbitrary and loosely defined. It labels certain political actors as “terrorist organizations” as if they did not have more advanced capabilities as organized militias.

It also seems to be more easily applied to Muslims or people from Muslim countries far more rapidly than in other cases.

If a Pakistani walks into a Pakistani mosque and kills nine Pakistanis because they have some different ethnic background than the shooter, the majority of Western media outlets would have no editorial issue labeling the shooter a terrorist at first hearing the story. For some off reason, when it’s in the context of non-Muslim countries or non-Muslim assailants, we shy away from the term, even if there is a parallel case in which some American goes into an American church and kills nine Americans with some different ethnic background than his own.

I think people are so used to associating it with 1) organizations or 2) Muslims that people aren’t even intuiting the simple definition of the word, which is to terrify others, to sew terror into the hearts of others, to instill fear and intimidation.

It’s the same convoluted logic behind certain Israeli media outlets’ labeling violent Jewish-on-Arab crime as “nationally” or “racially motivated,” avoiding desperately to use the word “terrorist.”

It is more complicated than simply stating the term is problematic because it is subjective who should be called a terrorist or a “freedom fighter.” For decades, and especially in the last 15 years, governments around the world have tried to reach an absolute definition of the term, often failing to agree on a text or realizing the concept of terrorism is so broad already that its overlapping with other concepts like “crime” and “war” created confusion.

Furthermore, what we once easily considered terrorism – the targeting of civilians by non-state actors – is outdated.

We still refer to Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, but their methods go well beyond that old tactic of sending a lone bomber to blow himself up in downtown Jerusalem. Especially in Hezbollah’s case, they have advanced to organized military tactics, usage of whole units and graduated to aerial reconnaissance.

Islamic State, while also encouraging attacks by lone gunmen around the world, is clearly managing an army. Calling the group a “terrorist organization” seems to underestimate the organization’s scope. The same needs to be said of Hamas and Hezbollah. All three groups rule territory and have organized maneuvers as part of military strategy.

There are plenty of other more well-defined terms that can stand in place of the term “terrorist:” suspect, assailant, shooter, or murderer.

Either define the term once and for all or don’t use it. Either make it so, or use terms that are clearer.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.
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