‘Terrorism’ in Charleston? It’s become a meaningless propaganda term

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A crowd gathers outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church following a prayer vigil nearby on Friday.

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.”

Greenwald wrote:

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/23/2015 - 09:38 am.

    In my thinking, “terrorism” is the attempt to make an outsized impact from a specific action, in that other members of the targeted population fear (or have terror) resulting from the act. It’s a “statement” action that understands that it may not achieve the ultimate goal of the actor but will cause the targeted population to know that they, too, could be targeted and harmed.

    Seems to me that the act in Charleston meets that criteria.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/23/2015 - 10:08 am.

    Polar words

    Greenwald is right but without looking at the whole picture. “Terrorism” has become one of those words Thurman Arnold defined as “polar words” those words which are used to unite and divide people. Polar words are used to convey emotions and express judgments and opinions. It’s true that the word is a propaganda word but it’s also true that “we” use the word to build ourselves up, give righteousness to our case and our actions while demonizing those who use these same tactics and actions against us.

    But then again, what other word would we have applied to the 9/11 bombers? What new and better words than “terrorism” to describe the use of lynching in the Jim Crow South for decades?

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/23/2015 - 10:35 am.

    All abusive killing tied with a black ribbon called “terror”?

    Greenwald is right…in the use and abuse of one word to magnify its presence in our lives.

    Protective simplicity but what do we lose, sacrifice for that ‘protection’?

    If we keep labeling acts of ugly killings by sick individuals and call it “terrorism” then we can accept any killing done in such an abusive manner as terror… build fear and hate as our common bedfellow controlled by the labels of unconstitutional power-brokers’ of injustice simplistically excusing such acts as protective intervention but closing down our most precious guaranteed freedoms?

    Terror becomes a collective term and fear and hate blinds us as the T word becomes the watch word of the hour… the better to justify all acts against the right of privacy and so much more? The better to justify the creepy, creeping, destructive nature sacrificing our civil liberties. now so tragically lost in the process?

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/23/2015 - 11:20 am.

    Terrorism is

    The personal attempt to murder many members of a hated group for a political reason. Genocide is the organized murder of many members of a hated group for political reasons by a government or a very large group of individuals. Multiple terrorist acts impacting large numbers of people are genocide. Genocide designed to totally wipe out a people or culture is a holocaust. The key common factor is that the hatred is not at an individual level, but is triggered by who the victim was representing. Terrorists also like soft targets. Who expects to get murdered at a prayer meeting? And the victor either glorifies or covers their effective acts of terrorism.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/23/2015 - 12:26 pm.

    An alterantive

    The alternative is to return to the use of the term in its original sense: those who use terror as a weapon. Of course, to do so, we have to admit that we’ve used that weapon (or aided and abetted its use) ourselves in various conflicts, including WWII.

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