Words Matter: The Many Meanings of Terrorism
This week we are featuring titles from our New Directions in Critical Theory series. Today, we have a guest post from Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson, author of Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire. In this book, Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson rejects attempts to define what terrorism is in favor of a historico-philosophical investigation into the conditions under which uses of this contested term become meaningful.
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In September 2018, a group of UK-based survivors of terrorist attacks launched a campaign under the heading #WordsMatter to draw attention to the effects of the language we use to speak about terrorism. In a series of short films, the survivors argue that descriptions in media reports of terrorists as “lone wolves,” “masterminds,” or “soldiers” legitimize and even glorify perpetrators of horrific acts of violence and express insensitivity towards survivors’ experience. As a consequence, they advocate for use of more dispassionate language when reporting on terrorist attacks.
The #WordsMatter campaign urges us to consider that the words we use to describe violent actions and perpetrators are neither neutral nor without consequences. Because normative judgments are embedded in our language and because these normative judgments have effects in the world, we ought to choose our words carefully, lest we engage in dangerous propaganda and harmful behavior by glamorizing or exculpating terrorists.
Notice, however, that the term “terrorism,” too, carries normative connotations that inhibit dispassionate analysis. Just like the words “mastermind” or “soldier,” the language of terrorism issues a judgment in the very act of describing an action or agent. But unlike those other terms, the word “terrorism” does not typically bestow legitimacy, glory, or honor upon the acts and actors so described. In fact, we usually apply this label to delegitimize and condemn certain behaviors and authorize social, political, and legal sanctions.
“The #WordsMatter campaign urges us to consider that the words we use to describe violent actions and perpetrators are neither neutral nor without consequences.”
We can see this clearly in cases of violence where mere observation of the violent behavior itself does not allow us to clearly determine whether it is an act of terrorism. Consider as an example the 2015 incident in San Bernardino, California, which was initially described as a shooting but quickly labeled an act of terrorism when it was learned that the perpetrators, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent and a Pakistani-born permanent resident, had pledged allegiance to Daesh on Facebook. Contrast this with the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. Even though 64-year-old American Stephen Paddock killed more than 50 people, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department did not investigate it as an act of terrorism because the perpetrator was believed to be “a local individual” whose motivation was unknown. As many commentators noted, had Paddock been Muslim, the response would have been rather different.
These brief examples not only show that we do not typically use the term “terrorism” to describe a particular kind of violence, but also suggest that the label is not really descriptive at all. Instead, whether we call an act of violence “terrorism” depends on political choices that track a whole range of actions, discourses, institutions, beliefs, identities, and norms that are perceived as threats to national security, democratic values, and our modern way of life. As a consequence, we variously use the term “terrorism” to describe political regimes, tyrants and dictators, ideologies and belief systems, racial identities, strategies of warfare, crimes, and so forth.
In my book, Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire, I show that it took quite a long time for terrorism to become this conglomerate of meanings and uses. We can trace its history to the French Revolution, when terrorism first appeared on the political scene. In a speech at the National Convention in 1794, the Jacobin-turned-conspirator Jean Lambert Tallien denounced Robespierre’s Reign of Terror as terrorism—that is, a system of government distinct from other political systems, like monarchy or democracy, by virtue of its use of terror as a means of exercising power. This use of the term “terrorism” to condemn Robespierre’s rule quickly gave way to a more general notion of terrorism as a political philosophy, like liberalism or republicanism, which specified terror as a principle of political organization. Subscribing to this principle made one a terrorist, just like being a liberal in the classical sense means that one subscribes to the idea that the task of government is the protection of individual freedom.
“This use of the term “terrorism” to condemn Robespierre’s rule quickly gave way to a more general notion of terrorism as a political philosophy, like liberalism or republicanism, which specified terror as a principle of political organization.”
An additional dimension of meaning was added in the late 19th century, when Russian social revolutionaries championed the tradition of French Jacobinism to elaborate a systematic theory of terrorism as a tactic of class war. The enemies of the people were to be targeted with surgical precision by a clandestine network of small terrorist groups that operated in secrecy. In this way, collateral damage and open confrontation with the tsarist regime’s military power could be avoided. While Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Lenin later rejected such acts of individual terrorism, they defended proletarian violence against the ruling classes and incorporated revolutionary terror against the class enemy into the machinations of the Bolshevik state.
French revolutionary conceptions of terrorism also traveled to Algeria via 19th-century French imperial practices of colonial war, which were transformed into practices of counter-terrorism in the 20th century. In the context of a growing movement of Algerian national independence, the term “terrorism” now described what France regarded as a new, irregular kind of war. The suppression of this war required equally new and irregular counter-measures on the part of the French colonial army—not against Algerian populations to be colonized as in the 19th century but against French subjects seeking independence from France.
“This brief survey shows that the ways in which we use the term “terrorism” today not only have a long history but have acquired quite some baggage along the way.”
This French notion of terrorism and its attendant practices of counterterrorism were invoked by the U.S. Pentagon as a model for counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East after 9/11. But as I suggested earlier, current political use of this term also includes a variety of other conceptions of terrorism as state violence, ideologically motivated violence, the actions of particular persons, the strategic use of violence as a tactic of war, and so on. Over the past fifty years, these different notions have converged in a concept of terrorism as a general threat to American values and security—a development that has been fueled by the rise of neoconservatism in U.S. politics and a concomitant commitment to the global expansion of free-market economics and American-style liberal democracy.
This brief survey shows that the ways in which we use the term “terrorism” today not only have a long history but have acquired quite some baggage along the way. For the past two centuries, the concept of terrorism has served to articulate contextually specific and historically variable forms of enmity. It has been used to authorize the use of otherwise unjustifiable violence in the name of defending society, the nation, a class, or humanity against its terrorist enemies. When we use the language of terrorism today, we do so, albeit often unknowingly, against the background of this history. Our conceptual apparatus of terrorism over time acquired a variety of components that allow us to selectively attribute the term to particular forms of violence, specific kinds of people, certain types of government, and peculiar strategies of warfare. It is because we are able to almost imperceptibly switch between these components that it is possible for the San Bernardino shooting mentioned earlier to become an act of terrorism, with all the consequences such a description brings about, while the Las Vegas shooting is described as the act of a disturbed individual that ought not be politicized. Thus, we should be mindful of how terrorism’s legacy as an instrument of revolution, state terror, and imperial ambitions inadvertently shapes our present. This is not to suggest that we ought not judge violent actions, including terrorism, or eliminate the language of terrorism altogether. Rather, my point is that precisely because it is impossible to avoid judgment, we should be attentive to the full range of meanings that makes our present use of this concept possible and effective. This is particularly important because successful attributions of the label “terrorism” authorize not only the punishment of perpetrators of violence but also the restriction of our rights, ever-increased surveillance, racial profiling, and indefinite war. Words matter. Let’s use them judiciously.
Read an excerpt from chapter 1 of Genealogies of Terrorism: Revolution, State Violence, Empire.