Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What is a terrorist?

Photo by Wally Gobetz
Most of us have been following the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt and arrest involving the Tsarnaev brothers.

Before Boston police or the FBI even had any suspects, the news coverage almost immediately described the bombers as "terrorists" or referred to the incident as an act of "terrorism." I thought that labeling was interesting not only because it felt so natural, but -- as a colleague of mine also pointed out -- because the coverage disturbingly lacked any context surrounding these highly connotative terms.

So, as I often do, I began with denotative definitions. First, terrorist:
"a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism"
Tautology. Great. So terrorism then:
"the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes"
When I see the Tsarnaev brothers, I don't see terrorists, only men who have committed an incredible atrocity and should be punished for it. They aren't members of any group, they don't appear to have deep political motives, and their actions don't seem to be exceptionally well planned.

To that end, I was glad to hear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would not be tried as an enemy combatant, but rather in the civilian court system. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen who committed crimes in the United States and was arrested in the United States. He is a criminal, not a combatant, and choosing to put him on trial as such sets an important example and precedent for the future.

This precedent is paramount because we live in the midst of the "War on Terror," itself a misnomer. Wars are implicitly winnable, but our current approach of fighting semi-systematic violence with systematic violence will never end. Wars end when one side grows tired of fighting, lacks the ability to continue fighting, or are all dead. The U.S. military is incapable of victory with such terms. Terror will never be defeated, only managed.

It's also important to point out that all acts of violence are meant to intimidate or coerce, but terrorism has a distinct meaning in the public mind as a specialized form of violence. It's systematic, theocratically and religiously motivated, and carried out by Arab Muslims.

That is not was terrorism is, but that is what terrorism means, and to evoke that so readily and without context can have dangerous consequences for a nervous, frightened, angry, and trigger-happy people already living in a seemingly constant state of violence and war. My message to the news media is simple: in future, exercise more cautious word choice, because language has more power than we often realize.