Sunday, February 21, 2010

What It Takes To Be A Terrorist

It takes being a Muslim, as Glenn Greenwald observes.
All of this underscores, yet again, that Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity. It has really come to mean: "a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies." That's why all of this confusion and doubt arose yesterday over whether a person who perpetrated a classic act of Terrorism should, in fact, be called a Terrorist: he's not a Muslim and isn't acting on behalf of standard Muslim grievances against the U.S. or Israel, and thus does not fit the "definition." One might concede that perhaps there's some technical sense in which term might apply to Stack, but as Fox News emphasized: it's not "terrorism in the larger sense that most of us are used to . . . terrorism in that capital T way." We all know who commits terrorism in "that capital T way," and it's not people named Joseph Stack.


Anonymous said...

I think a key ingredient to the present day terrorism lexicon that Glenn misses is the scale of the attack, and the notion that the attack is part of a larger series of past or potentially future attacks.

Consider if Jim Smith, a disgruntled anti-government type had managed to bring down say, the Sears Tower and take out 500 people in the process maybe 10 years ago. Also suppose Jim Smith was part of a loosely tied anti-government group who really didn't want to pay taxes to the government.

Now fast forward to the most recent event, human nature would be to attempt to draw similarities between the two events, and the public's sense of fear over anyone with ties to any anti-tax group would skyrocket, and the event would instantly be labeled terrorism. Meanwhile, the exact same event perpetrated by an irate farmer angry and US trade practices would probably not be characterized as terrorism.

Bottom line - I don't think you need fear of a particular religion or people group to yield a seemingly slanted definition of terrorism.


Jon said...

The shoe bomber caused no damage, but he was a terrorist. The Christmas Day bomber in Detroit caused no damage, but he was a terrorist. So I don't think scale of the attack is relevant. They were both Muslims.

Though in truth I think it would be more accurate to say that terrorism is violence motivated by opposition to U.S. imperialist policies. That's usually a Muslim these days, but Reagan's war on terrorism targeted Latin America more than anything.

As far as being a series of more attacks, I can see your point to some degree, though I would point out that this is not part of the definition contained in U.S. and international law. So there's a feeling I get that these definitions are contrived so as to target people on the current U.S. enemies list. But my question would be this. Obama is bombing Yemen, Pakistan, etc, destroying many civilians and it's all part of a series of attacks with political aims. Is that terrorism? Because I think the real definition of terrorism is when they attack us. When we attack them it's not terrorism.

Anonymous said...

As far as the US's definition for terrorism and their interest in shaping it in a particular way, my contention is that the hesitancy of some to classify the recent plane crash as terrorism act to a large part can be explained with a completely unrelated phenomenon. Therefore, the two topics seem largely unrelated despite attempts by some to link them.

Consider the reasons given by the Austin Police Chief for not labeling it as terrorism:

"I did not want to use it because I didn't want people that have children in school and loved ones at work to be panicking, thinking that, 'Oh my God, is there going to be 10 more little planes around the country crashing into buildings?"' Acevedo said. "I knew that this appeared to be one guy in one city in one event."

It makes sense to me that if it would have been reported as terrorism, people would have assumed further attacks might come. It seems clear that one major component in people's minds if something is terrorism or not is the notion of impending future attack, as well as a previous pattern of attack.

You bring up a valid point that past attempts by Muslims to cause damage that were ultimately unsuccessful or resulted in small damage were classified as terrorism. I think I worded my previous statement poorly on that topic. When I say that one aspect that people naturally attribute to terrorism is the scale of attack, I was thinking in terms of the scale of the overall string of attacks. I think if a particular group attempted 10 attacks, and they all resulted in minimal damage, then many fewer people would consider it an act of terrorism than if 1 of the attacks resulted in 200 people dying. The other 9 would then (and perhaps retroactively) be considered acts of terrorism.

In the same way, back to my previous hypothetical example of someone taking out the Sears Tower, people would view the recent plane crash as an act of terrorism if there was a link in their mind to a common ideal or group.