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September 16, 2014 / Congau

What is a Terrorist?

“Terrorist” is a word, and words, of course, have no intrinsic meaning. They only mean whatever people refer to when using them. So what do we actually refer to when pronouncing this  term “terrorist”?

Some definitions might be suggested, but then we must make sure that the definitions actually cover the objects they are supposed to cover. If A is a terrorist, but B is not, there must be a definition that includes A, but not B.

Assuming that those people who are usually labeled “terrorists” by the Western press are fairly given this name, what would be a reasonable definition that precedes the name-calling? If al Qaida, the IS, the Taliban and Ukrainian separatists are all terrorists, what would be the definition that would cover these groups, but would not cover groups that are usually perceived as freedom fighters? Let’s test some suggestions:

“A terrorist is someone who uses violence to achieve a political goal.                                                                                    ”That would certainly cover the above mentioned groups, but it would also include our dear freedom fighters. (The anti-apartheid movement, for example, also used violence.)

“A terrorist is someone who kills innocent civilians.”                                                                                                              Those groups do, but innocent civilians are inevitably killed in any armed struggle. Any American president would then have to be called a terrorist.

“A terrorist is someone who deliberately kills innocent civilians.”                                                                                             That would seem to acquit American presidents, but it poses several problems. What is meant by “deliberately”? If the killing of innocent civilians is not the main objective of a violent act, but just an expected outcome, is it then deliberate? If it’s just a side-effect, does it count as deliberate? (Whenever America goes to war, civilians are expected to get killed.) Does it matter how much is done to avoid this side-effect? Even if a lot is done to avoid it, one could always do more, right? Here it seems the criteria are not sufficiently clear-cut to make a useful definition. (Moreover, how can we objectively measure other people’s intentions to know what is deliberate and what is not?

A much more clear-cut definition could sound like this:                                                                                                               “A terrorist is someone whose main objective it is to kill innocent civilians.”                                                                             This definition, however, seems to be too narrow to fit the general usage.

Al Qaida probably fits it and so does anyone who kills people indiscriminately in order to scare the general public. But other violent groups cannot be called terrorist according to this criterion. The Taliban and Ukrainian separatists, brutal as they may be, pursue a strategic goal, and if civilians are killed in their way, that is just an added consequence.

If a violent act is committed in an effort to conquer land or to overthrow a government, it cannot be called terrorist according to this definition.

In my view choosing such a definition would be very useful because it would clearly point out what objects the term refers to, (and that is the very purpose of a definition.) However, I’m not an inventor of language and a word only has the meaning that the speaker puts into it.

Nevertheless, I suspect that such a definition, or a similar one, contains the original meaning of the word “terrorist” or maybe even the basic current meaning. It may have this fairly straight forward meaning, but because it points to something that is mostly perceived as morally very bad, it has become a general word of abuse. Thereby it seems to lose all meaning.

Many other words in the language share this destiny. In the field of politics the words “fascist” and “Nazi”, for example, had and still have a very specific meaning, but are now often used as mere name-calling. However, that doesn’t imply that its concrete content has disappeared. (A Nazi is still basically a supporter of the historical German national socialist party.)

We sometimes give an object an incorrect name on purpose in order to put it in a bad light by comparing it to something despicable. That is the nature of words of abuse. It is a rather human habit, and most of us resort to it in moments of affect. But what may be forgivable when emotions run high is less acceptable in sober circumstances. We should expect serious news reports to employ an unemotional language and call things by their proper names. To call someone a terrorist is often just an expression of contempt and therefore it should be avoided by anyone who wants to be perceived as neutral.

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