In light of the recent air-strikes by the United States military I thought it might be as prudent a time as ever to voice my personal concern with what I see as the inappropriate categorization of rebel groups like ISIL and their members with the nominal: terrorist. I’d like to start this discussion with a question:
Are terrorists to terror(ism) what politicians are to politics?
Taken from a Wikipedia article on Politics (paraphrased) is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a global, civic or individual level. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance – organized control over a human community, particularly a state. It is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resource within a given community as well as the interrelationships between communities.
Taken from a Wikipedia article on Terror, “Before the advent of modern terrorism, the term “terrorism” in the English language was sometimes used interchangeably with terror. The modern definition of terrorism refers to criminal or illegal acts of violence at randomly chosen targets, in an effort to raise fear. It is practiced by extremist groups with a limited political base or parties on the weaker side in asymmetric warfare. Terror on the other hand is practiced by governments and law enforcement officials, usually within the legal framework of the state.”
I’m not trying to infer from these definitions that politics and politicians use terror to govern, that’s a debate I don’t want to have here. However, what I think those two definitions show is that there is an important difference between the agents of politics and the agents of terror. While I do believe that the word ‘terrorist’ captures both the brutality and depravity of the members of groups like ISIL, I think it benefits them more than it does us.
When it’s discovered that a politician has done something wrong we have at our disposal a bevy of appropriate modifiers to use. For many, when Obama is mentioned ‘corrupt politician’ quickly follows. Yet for some reason we have come to accept that the word ‘terrorist’ encapsulates all of the shades of terror, and those who wield it.
“Behind every politician is a hard working staff. Behind every man is a good woman.”
Is there a difference between terror, terrorism and terrorist. Well, the definition above (and the article) does distinguish between terror, terrorism and terrorist. So, to recap, terror is an experience of fear, terrorism is the use of violent actions to produce fear to control or exert power – often for religious, ideological and political goals. The terrorist is the person who places a road-side bomb, organizes operations aimed to overthrow a government (by means of mass destruction, assassination or coercion), influence the policy of a government, or coerce and intimidate a population (all by illegal, violent, destructive means). The US code has more precise definitions of terrorism. Interestingly, as an aside, the US code sub-section 2331 (on ‘Terrorism’) defines a person as “any individual or entity capable of holding a legal or beneficial interest in property. Despite these seemingly precise definitions there is by no means consensus among politicians, lawyers and academics. This is largely due to the fact that there are many forms of terrorism, many goals (and reasons for those goals), many different roles individuals play in groups like ISIL.
You become an author when you publish a book, a professional athlete when you play professional basketball and a politician when you run for political office. When do you become a terrorist? Is it when you join a terror organization? Is it when disdain turns into thoughts of overthrowing a government, and then to thoughts about how to go about doing that (because terror organizations start small)?
So why do we restrict ourselves to one word when we talk about ISIL and rebel fighters? Well I think part of the reason is that terrorist does a good job of shaming. One of the biggest fears humans have trans-culturally is exclusion and shaming. Public shaming is a form punishment common in the middle east (especially countries and states under Islamist control), though illegal in the west post-colonially. The word is emotionally and politically charge, and thus serves for certain people a political purpose – notably, after the events on September 11.
Because terrorism is such a threat to everyone involved, but particularly the west, there is a fear of misidentifying groups. American and Canadian security forces constantly keep a watchful eye for networks of terrorism. So in that way the process can be thought of in terms of Boolean data types, conditional expressions and control flow. (A boolean data type is a type of data with two possible values – true or false. A conditional expression performs different computations or actions depending on the true/false values of the Boolean data type. The control flow is the order in which individual statements or instructions are executed or followed). As that type of data, it is helpful.
Because socially it is a form of shaming there is an accompanying inhibition to question it. People (including myself) are afraid of what they might be called, or associated with, or what might happen if they voice concerns about the way in which we identify terrorists and the words with which we treat them, publicly (esp. in the media). In the states 9/11 is still an event which people are guarded about. Anything other than consideration and remorse is deemed inappropriate. It’s a touchy subject. So there’s a great risk involved with criticizing the way in which we talk about the same groups of people responsible for the events on September 11.
Availability heuristics are partially responsible for the persistence of this naming methodology. When I say the word ‘terrorist’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? That’s an example of an availability heuristic. They work both ways. The images produced by the word ‘terrorist’ become the constraints for the label ‘terrorist’. As with most things ‘availability heuristic’, that’s a problem.
Save for aesthetic minimalism, I can’t think of any good reasons why we restrict ourselves to this one word. Especially when there is so much diversity among terrorists, and division in the definition (both legally and theoretically) of terrorism itself. I started this essay with the bold goal to convince myself and others to replace the word terrorist with the word ‘coward’ – at least in public discourse. Though I am not certain of that goal anymore, what I am certain of is the need for more descriptions of anyone we feel appropriately warrants the title ‘terrorist’. Of the acts of terrorism there does seem to be this kind of modification. We call acts of terror ‘brutal’ and ‘horrifying’, ‘violent’ and ‘deadly’. And rightly so, we have more context after an event than before. These groups benefit from our use of these words. The need for modification is there, but I grant you that it’s tricky.
Here is the remainder of the original essay I posted before I modified it:
Along with images of wounded marines and roadside bombs, the word terrorists also generates a sense of authority and power. Philosophically, ‘power’ is an aspect of the concept(s) of ‘ability’. Roughly, power is the active ability. Walking, reading, running (any of the basic things we are generally capable of doing) are not considered abilities. What we know of terror is that it’s not difficult to generate. Broadly, all that is required is cowardice and foolishness. It’s my contention then, that when terror is mentioned, ‘coward’ should quickly follow. And perhaps we can think of more modifiers to keep handy to describe all the different shades of these ‘terrorists’.
Perhaps there should be an addendum attached to the ‘terrorist’. Coward is a suitable clarifier.
I mean think about it. These terrorists rarely fight on the front-lines, and when they do it’s usually by means of ambush, where they outnumber their enemy (usually the weakest enemies). They ‘terrorize’ their own unarmed and poverty-stricken populous . They suicide-bomb and remote-detonate, and kidnap journalists and foreign aid workers trying to make the situation in the country they’re supposedly defending better, and subsequently torture, humiliate, and murder them. ISIS recently released a recording in their twitter imploring all Muslims to kill all non-believers. I mean, as far as descriptions go, this is the description of a coward.
For an organization that uses fear as its primary tool of war, confusingly the impetus for everything they do is religious in origin (only Islam is not some Viking-esque warrior cult). Their methodologies involve fear centrally – to manipulate, to inculcate ideas, to recruit. And yet they have to believe that god is going to protect them and when they die everything is going to be fine. They believe in a divine order; a god that will save them and ‘reward’ them. They believe in an afterlife. Again, as far as descriptions go, this is the description of a coward. They are a clade of cowards, relying on some figure of ultimate comfort for safety and justice. Their soldiers do not even satisfy the least-stringent definition of a soldier.
Although what they do is horrible, it is nothing new. Be-headings are common in that part of the world, as are terrorist and rebel organizations. That fact shouldn’t desensitize us to the inhumane actions they and others commit, nor should it inspire some Waltean-fugue, but it should make us reconsider the way we describe these groups. Because from where I’m sitting it appears as though we’re playing into the hand of cowards. We are de-humanizing them, reducing them to objects of terror. The impulse to do so is probably most of the time commendable and honest; ‘you’ve done something horrible, now we’re going to shame and condemn you’. The problem is that they aren’t objects of terror, they are human beings. It’s not terrorists attacking us, it’s human beings. And unless we start broadly discussing that distinction as much as we discuss terrorists qua terrorism then I’m afraid history is due to continually repeat itself. They are human-beings; flawed, broken, insecure, afraid, anxious, worried. They were children once. They were innocent. Most of the very important figures were inculcated at a young age with an anti-western narrative; bigotry built upon hatred and ignorance. They are women and men, children and teenagers. They are our citizens. And they are cowards. (see: The Terrorists Son by Zak Ebrahim)
I experience night-terrors from time to time (once or twice a year). I’m familiar with the feeling of terror, and the disorienting helplessness accompanying it. These are vile people, and while Foley and Sotloff must have felt terror (necessarily), they don’t have the pre-requisites for the connotations of ‘terrorist’ and ‘terror’ that make any other label beyond the nominal ‘terror’ mutually exclusive. At least not for what those words have come to mean, and for the emotions, associations and imagery that follow from what feels like every utterance.
ISIS has been around for a while (there is no shortage of articles outlining the chronology of ISIS in the middle-east). The inter-rebel conflict during the Syrian war has seen some violent fighting. Fighting in Afghanistan between rebel soldiers and ‘terrorist’ factions and allied troops has been violent and direct. However, although these ‘terrorist’ groups are capable of ground-attacks, it’s no secret that they prefer to fight ‘dirty’. If we had a Napoleonic battle between Allied forces and rebel factions the rebels would be swiftly defeated – even if we returned to trench-warfare they’d still have no chance. Even considering the way wars are fought today though, these groups still fight like cowards. They take villages and towns captive, torture and abuse its inhabitants and use every means necessary to avoid direct confrontation with allied forces unless its absolutely necessary – or unless its a coordinated ambush.
If the discussion of the problems and questions associated with global terrorism and middle-eastern conflict can have a conclusion, then perhaps mine at least might be this. These organizations and groups we call terrorists have done great evil and will continue to do so it seems, unless stopped. I don’t know how to do that, but I do have some ideas, and I think I’ve provided at least some information. They are agents of terror, but secondarily to being human beings. Of the virtues commonly used to describe human beings, the most suiting anti-virtue (vice) is cowardice. They are humans, and they are cowards. It’s important that we know that, and that they know we know that. They’re not all post-human sociopaths devoid of weakness and fear, hell-bent by some divine order to bring the western world to its knees. They’re people. And they’re weak people. If we call them terrorists we should qualify that label with another label ‘coward’. They are cowards. We must humanize them. They are weak, broken, sad, tragic cowards. And they will not succeed.