I understand all the complaints and criticism against those who are declining to call the despicable killing of innocents at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., an act of “terrorism.” And I agree with those who suspect and believe that somehow it’s hard in post-9/11 America to be labeled a terrorist if you are not a Muslim attacking or killing white people. But I agree even more with Glenn Greenwald who argues that instead of using the term more broadly, we should use it a lot less and maybe not at all because “terrorism” has become a “meaningless propaganda term.”
The point here is not, as some very confused commentators suggested, to seek an expansion of the term “terrorism” beyond its current application. As someone who has spent the last decade more or less exclusively devoted to documenting the abuses and manipulations that term enables, the last thing I want is an expansion of its application.
But what I also don’t want is for non-Muslims to rest in their privileged nest, satisfied that the term and its accompanying abuses is only for that marginalized group. And what I especially don’t want is to have this glaring, damaging mythology persist that the term “terrorism” is some sort of objectively discernible, consistently applied designation of a particularly hideous kind of violence.
I’m eager to have the term recognized for what it is: a completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever. Recognition of that reality is vital to draining the term of its potency.
The examples proving the utter malleability of the term “terrorism” are far too numerous to chronicle here. But over the past decade alone, it’s been used by Western political and media figures to condemn Muslims who used violence against an invading and occupying force in Afghanistan, against others who raised funds to help Iraqis fight against an invading and occupying military in their country, and for others who attack soldiers in an army that is fighting many wars. In other words, any violence by Muslims against the West is inherently “terrorism,” even if targeted only at soldiers at war and/or designed to resist invasion and occupation.
By stark contrast, no violence by the West against Muslims can possibly be “terrorism,” no matter how brutal, inhumane or indiscriminately civilian-killing. The U.S. can call its invasion of Baghdad “Shock and Awe” as a classic declaration of terrorism intent, or fly killer drones permanently over terrorized villages and cities, or engage in generation-lasting atrocities in Fallujah, or arm and fund Israeli and Saudi destruction of helpless civilian populations, and none of that, of course, can possibly be called “terrorism.” It just has the wrong perpetrators and the wrong victims.