It's time to banish the word 'terrorism'

It's time to banish the word 'terrorism'
5 min read
26 Mar, 2018
Comment: A new war on 'terrorism' should be declared, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
Investigators did not call Mark Anthony Conditt, who blew himself up, a 'suicide bomber' [Getty]
Between March 2 and 20, five package bombs exploded in and around the US city of Austin, Texas.

Two of the devices were posted to private residences, killing two people, and an additional trip-wire bomb was planted in a residential neighbourhood.

But the suspect, Mark Anthony Conditt, is not a terrorist. Austin Chief of Police Brian Manley, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Texan Congressman Michael McCaul have all gone out of their way to avoid calling the bombing spree "terrorism".

Sanders tweeted that there was "no apparent nexus to terrorism at this time". McCaul, appearing on Fox News claimed "it's clear from his confession that this is not terror-related".

The reason for the collective reluctance of authorities to condemn the bombings as terrorism is that police have yet to find evidence that Conditt's actions were politically motivated - a precaution seldom implemented when the perpetrator is not white.

Terrorism. The federal government definition limits its usage to crimes that are politically motivated. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as "t
he unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims".

Despite these definitions, the term remains, legally, linguistically and socially, vague. Who defines what political aims are? Is it the pursuit of a downfall of government? Is it the proliferation of white supremacist ideology? Is it the advancement of one particular party?
Headlines about bomber Norwegian Anders Brevik, who murdered 77 people, and who was convicted of terrorism, still refer to him as a 'mass-murderer' rather than a 'terrorist'

When white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015, with the aim of starting a race war, he pleaded guilty to all state charges against him - none of which were terrorism.

By these definitions, should the actions of the leaders of UK fascist political organisation Britain First be deemed terrorism? The pair harassed, filmed and persecuted Muslims and released this footage on their political platforms. Earlier this month they were found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment. 

Headlines about bomber Norwegian Anders Brevik, who murdered 77 people, and who was convicted of terrorism, still refer to him as a "mass-murderer" rather than a "terrorist". 

Why are the anonymous calls for a "Punish a Muslim Day" in the UK, and the targeting of Muslim members of Britain's parliament with noxious packages yet to be condemned as incitement of terrorism? 

In October 2017, US President Donald Trump refused to classify the mass shooting in Las Vegas as terrorism, despite Nevada state law defining terrorism as any act that
"involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population".

And when other attacks of equal horror occur - the mass (and frequent) shooting of American schoolchildren, for example, the perpetrators are labelled as misunderstood, quiet, godly or troubled. 

The reason for the discrepancy is obvious; white people can't be terrorists. And on the rare occasions that they are found guilty of terrorism, social and media bias results in their historical re-labelling as murderers, shooters or killers. 

Whether we like it or not, the predictable result of the ambiguity surrounding the term terrorism, is that it has assumed a loaded, racist association. 

In the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Woolwich attack, in which Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered in London, a BBC Radio 4 report, as well as the national evening news reported that the attackers were "of Muslim appearance". 

The use of the word "terrorism" has resulted in a post-attack hysteria that asks not "are the victims alive?", nor "what can we do to help?" but, "was the attacker a Muslim?" This is the most pressing question when tragedy strikes, because it permits us to assign blame on some collective evil. 

It allows us to cast off the attackers as so alien, deluded and ruthless that we need not work to challenge their motivations. Labelling an attack as terrorism allows us to sweep it under the carpet as somebody else's incurable problem. 
The sensationalisation of terrorism has devolved the word to a point where it is all but meaningless

This is a convenient and cunning method of othering which facilitates the humanisation of white, attackers. Mark Anthony Conditt was "a challenged young man", "quiet and shy" and whose video confession was described by Austin Police Chief Brian Manley as not mentioning "anything about hate".

Because, I don't know about you, but if I ever get bombed, it'll make me feel much better if my bomber is full of love.

But does this label serve any purpose? Does the assignation of terrorism make the stabbing of Lee Rigby any more severe? Does the absence of this label - justified or not - in the bombings in Austin make the loss of two lives by bombing less devastating or terrifying?

The sensationalisation of terrorism has devolved the word to a point where it is all but meaningless. Once a short-hand for Al-Qaida and, more recently, Islamic State group affiliation, terrorism has lost all meaning.

So let us call a mass shooting a mass shooting, call a stabbing a stabbing, call a bomber a bomber, call the perpetrator white or Arab or Asian. 

Give us facts, not racist sensationalism.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.