It’s almost inescapable. Every day we are bombarded with a terror attack here, a terrorist threat there – we hear the word terrorism so often that we have almost become immune to it. Worse than how often we hear the word is often we hear the word misapplied, or used in an exaggerated sense. That for every legitimate instance of terrorism, we are treated to a news report or public description of terrorism where the word most certainly doesn’t apply. In fact, most of the time this is the case; the word is sensationalized to draw attention to whatever the speaker/writer is trying to demonize. While the century is young, I am so exhausted with the misapplication of the word “terrorism” that I am calling it the weasel word of the 21st Century.
Terrorism has no official definition under international law. Yet in the average mans lexicon it is the “carrying out of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims” – this according to Webster. This is however a broad and simplified definition which fails to contextualize the severity of the word. This is part of the problem, it doesn’t.
Prior to 9/11, the word terrorism was not used nearly as often as it is today. The powerful imagery of 9/11 and of post-9/11 actions and geopolitical instability has allowed the word to pack a particular solid punch. In fact I think you would be troubled to think of anything other than 9/11 and the “War on Terror” the moment the word terrorism is evoked.
We are at perpetual war with an existential crisis. We are at war with what it means to live in a “post 9/11 society.” What does it mean to be “western” or what values do you represent versus that of those called terrorists? Who are the good guys, and more importantly who are the bad?
Why is what happened at Sandy Hook not a terrorist attack but what happened at Fort Hood a terrorist attack? Is it because the perpetrator was Muslim at Fort Hood? Or how about the man who flew a plane into the IRS building back in 2010? Was that a terrorist attack? Depending on who you ask, the Israelis are the terrorists or the Palestinians are. What about the attack on federal officials, shootings from Gabby Giffords to Pentagon officials? Assassination attempts on the president? Jumping the walls of the White House armed to the teeth? A government we don’t like in a sandy nation state? The allies of governments we (America) dislike?
Where does it end?
We hear the word so loosely applied that it begins to lack any kind of bite whatsoever. People are legitimately tired of hearing this word. It is so grossly misused, it has essentially become a weasel word. And that’s a shame for when things like 9/11 occur, when the word is truly justified.
Best example of this is when promoting the film The Interview Howard Stern told his audience in reference to the Sony Hack “This attack is no different than a 9/11-type attack…The president should have announced immediately we’re under attack.”
Hollywood was quick to embrace these comments, with many in the industry (while maybe not comparing the hack to 9/11) quick to call the hack-attack “terrorism.”
It’s not. To call this an attack on private memos and documents an act of terror is not only a ludicrous exaggeration of that word, it is to affront those who were actual victims of terror. In response to his comments, the NY Post posted the following headline:
Less than twenty four hours later, emails were purportedly sent to various entertainment trades telling them to “remember September 11th, 2001” when threatening violence to theaters showing The Interview. Homeland Security was later quick to denounce any threat, but it didn’t stop many in the industry from ramping up the use of the word “terrorism.”
While I do not condone the crime which was committed against Sony, it fails to even meet the Webster definition of terrorism — that this was carried out as any sort of political act. And if it is found out to be politically motivated once the actual hackers are caught, it is still not an act of terror the way 9/11 was and any comparison to that effect is disgusting.
For every person comparing computer hackers or lone gunmen to militants who flew commercial aircraft into a building full of civilians let it be known you are not only cheapening the word, you are insulting actual victims of terrorism. I remember closing the windows to my bedroom in September 2001 and throwing up in the trash can because I knew what I was smelling was the decomposition of thousands of human bodies amid an acrid metallic-smelling fire. I remember watching people jump from the burning towers to their death. I remember my father, a city fireman, recall every time he heard a thud he knew it was another life he could not save. I remember sitting on my stoop with my dog wondering if I was an orphan after the buildings collapsed and day turned into night. And I am tearing up now as I type this because I and so many other New Yorkers are so irreparably damaged with PTSD by the events of that day. So for you or someone you know to call computer hacking or Fort Hood terrorism, it is an insulting and cheap use of that word.
We cannot just blindly call any threats, actions or attacks terrorism simply because of some narrow dictionary definition. Even when we feel violated or terrorized like I am sure many in LA feel right now, it does not make it an act of terrorism. The more we use extreme words like terrorism to define both a computer hacking and 9/11 the more it becomes a weasel word, devoid of any real significance. It is a cheaply used word to vilify whatever the user of the word is trying to vilify. I write this article in the hopes that people will more selectively apply the word “terrorism” in only the most extreme and catastrophic circumstances otherwise “the weasel word of the 21st Century” it just may become.
Please also read NSA reporter Glenn Greedwald’s more scholarly essay on the subject: