“Terror” is an empty word

In the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, Peter Jennings, who covered the tragedy for ABC, was criticized for having referred to the eight members of Black September who took part in the bloodshed as “guerrillas” and “commandos” instead of “terrorists”. Jennings could not possibly have sated these critics with an apology or a correction: to participate in this semantic dispute would have been to take sides, to implicitly profess an ideology. This, one imagines, is precisely what Jennings was trying to avoid in the first place.

A day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the President told the nation in a press conference that April 15th’s explosions at the Boston Marathon constituted an “act of terrorism”. On the day of the attacks, the President had seemed to have been avoiding this terminology; an administration figure told the New York Times that the President’s wording had evolved with the “information flow”.

We don’t gain much from trotting out this label as if it’s a uniquely instructive descriptor. The definitions for international and domestic terrorism in the U.S. Code might liberally be construed to apply not only to Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan, but also to most organized crime and gang activity, not to mention most conventional warfare. To top it off, there exists no comprehensive, internationally agreed-upon definition of “terrorism”, and most definitions currently in circulation feature language about as vague as that in the American version.

Naturally, this imprecision doesn’t stop ideologues and talking heads from bandying the term about as if it means something. In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Republican politicians began a prolonged attack on President Obama for supposedly failing to initially label the attack as an act of terror. None took the time to explain what consequence the tag could possibly have.

Terror, as it turns out, is not substantively different from many other forms of murder and war. The distinguishing feature of terror is that it attempts to coerce by inducing fear; whether it succeeds or not is up to the target population. To single out terror as a crime that somehow exceeds the facts of the act itself is to willfully submit to its perpetrators. What happened in Munich, Benghazi and Boston was murder—nothing more, nothing less.

Mattathias Lerner

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