When the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the world's largest news operation, decided in January not to call the Charlie Hebdo attackers terrorists, this made an impression on me. The head of the BBC Arabic service, Tarik Kafala, explained its reasoning:
Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can't. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That's much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.
The BBC is hardly the only media organization stumbling over the concept of terrorism. At the time of the the Beslan atrocity in September 2003, when Islamists murdered at least 385 people, most of them children – as a clear an act of terrorism as one can imagine – but the media found some twenty euphemisms for the attackers, including militants and activists.
Not only can the media and the United Nations not define this little word; one study, Political Terrorism, lists 109 definitions for it and debate over its meaning drives specialists to distraction. The concept just involves too many moving parts – personnel, weapons, tactics, networks, and goals. An American security specialist, David Tucker, urges those who would define it instead simply to "abandon hope" like those entering hell. His Israeli counterpart, Boaz Ganor, jokes that "The struggle to define terrorism is sometimes as hard as the struggle against terrorism itself."
If the BBC, the UN, and specialists cannot agree on what the word means, neither can politicians or the police. Does it make sense to soldier on fighting a semantic battle that will never be won? Why argue for a word that everyone agrees is confusing and some find loaded?
Therefore, I too have stopped using terrorism and terrorist (counterterrorism, however, is a tougher word to drop). It's not worth the fight. Better to use words like violent, murderous, Islamist, and jihadi, words that do not generate a definitional uproar. Better not to have to waste time arguing why the U.S. or Israeli governments are not terrorist.
Worse, this argument over terrorism diverts attention from the important fact, which is destruction and murder. Rather than have a debate whether an act of violence meets some theoretical threshold, let's focus on the real problems.
I have written & spoken some 200 times about terrorism; I argued over decades for its coherent use; note my Washington Post letter to editor on this topic in 1984; as recently as last October, I co-authored an article arguing that the legal and financial implications of the word terrorism require that it have "a precise and accurate definition, consistently applied." My new view is that legal and financial documents should be re-written without the term terrorism.
From The Washington Post.
It's been five months now since these words fell out of my vocabulary, long enough to be able to report that my analyses hold up and my political efforts undimmed. In fact, I am better off unburdened of it and its vocabulary debates. You would be too. (June 2, 2015)
June 3, 2015 update: Some readers misunderstood this analysis. I am neither making the BBC my moral guide nor becoming politically correct: I am saying that the debate over whether an act of violence constitutes terrorism or not is a sterile one. I prefer to focus on its connections to Islamist ideology, rogue regimes, or drug cartels – to real issues, not an academic debate over an abstract concept.
June 20, 2015 update: James Comey, the director of the FBI argues that the fatal shooting of nine black people in a South Carolina church by a white racist is not an act of terrorism for a rather odd reason:
Terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it's more of a political act. ... Based on what I know so far, I don't see it as a political act. Doesn't make it any less horrific the label but terrorism has a definition under federal law.
Comment: Again, a sterile and irrelevant debate over the meaning of terrorism distracts attention from far more important issues, such as the motivation of the assailant and the network he may have relied on.
July 13, 2015 update: The debate over the term terrorism significantly stifles efforts at self-protection in Turkey, where some 80 percent of the population sees ISIS as a terrorist group, but the lawyers say its not, so it's not. The result is a mess:
Although the majority of Turks identify IS as a terrorist organization and the security services are introducing stiffer measures against IS, Turkey is not able to launch an effective struggle because of the gaps in the Turkish legal system, which the IS militants are thoroughly familiar with. If Turkey decides on a serious struggle against IS, what is needed first are changes in the penal code. Otherwise the Turkish public will applaud when IS militants are apprehended but will not know that most of them are released a short time later.
Nov. 15, 2015 update: Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov implied that because Hezbollah has not attacked Russia, it is not a terrorist group: "Some say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. We maintain contacts and relations with them because we do not consider them a terrorist organization. They have never committed any terrorist acts on Russian territory." Comment: That's a particularly objective criterion.
Feb. 1, 2016 update: U.S. federal prosecutors say that Samy Hamzeh, 23, planned to launch a machine gun attack with two others on the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center in downtown Milwaukee with the intent to kill 30 or more Masons. Why Masons? The criminal complaint quotes Hamzeh saying the Masons "are playing with the world like a game, man, and we are like asses ... these are the ones that need to be killed."
The complaint also describes how, in preparation for the attack, he visited the center and practiced shooting. He also spoke in detail how the team would go about the attack, killing the receptionist, then methodically go from room to room, killing everyone in the building. "We'll get in all three of us together, the minute we get in, we shoot whoever is in front of us, and all have to be eliminated." Toward this end, he bought two fully automatic guns and a silencer.
Obsessively anti-Israel, he explained his motive: "We are here defending Islam, young people together join to defend Islam, that's it, that is what our intention is." His long-range goal to inspire similar attacks across the United States. "We will be marching at the front of the war" he told an informer.
All this might sound like a textbook definition of terrorism. Trouble is, according to an analysis in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "There are no such federal laws for a case like the one being mounted against Hamzeh — a so-called lone wolf suspect who planned an attack using guns." For reasons unknown to me, terrorism pertains to foreigners, groups, conspiracies, and attacks with explosives. (Hamzeh's attack is not a true conspiracy because his would-be partners were informers.) It concerns government property, protected groups (Masons fail that test), and membership in a listed terrorist group.
William Snyder, a former federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania, goes further and argues for not calling Hamzeh or those like him terrorists to deny them the public notoriety they seek. "Why give them a soapbox? Why give them headlines? Why risk confusing a jury?"
Comments: (1) This case typifies the wholly erratic and subjective use of the term terrorism. (2) I am particularly taken with the idea that not calling a perp terrorist denies him sought-for glory.
Mar. 15, 2016 update: "Both Assad and Putin define 'terrorist' as any armed person who opposes the [Syrian] regime," notes Anna Borshchevskaya.
Mar. 18, 2016 update: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has adopted Assad's and Putin's definition of terrorism, but goes further, including also unarmed opposition. He denounces "unarmed terrorists," saying: "There is no difference between a terrorist with a gun and bomb in his hand and those who use their work and pen to support terror. The fact that an individual could be a deputy, an academic, an author, a journalist or the director of an NGO does not change the fact that that person is a terrorist."
Even further he goes: "Certain segments of our society and in the international arena are at a crossroads. They will either be on our side, or the on terrorists' side." As Mustafa Akyol points out, "merely not being on the government's 'side' could get one branded and prosecuted as a terrorist." We have reached the point that wrong thinking = terrorism.
Comment: Again, preferring to focus on real problems rather than interminably argue over semantics, I prefer to abandon the words terrorism and terrorist.
July 12, 2016 update: See "Why Law Enforcement Isn't Calling Dallas Gunman a Terrorist" by Mariam Khan for the bafflingly complex reasons why Micah Johnson, who killed five policeman, does not rate as a terrorist.
Sep. 18, 2016 update: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo stated in the aftermath of an explosion in Manhattan that "A bomb going off is generically a terrorist activity." Of course, this makes no sense. A criminal could set off a bomb to blow up a safe. An angry lover or an honor killer could bomb his victim. A madman could hear God telling him to bomb his way to sainthood. And so on.
Jan. 17, 2017 updates: (1) Turkey's creative president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has broken new ground by dubbing holders of foreign currency terrorists:
there is no difference between a terrorist who has a gun and a bomb in his hands and those who have dollars, euros and interest rates. The aim is to bring Turkey to its knees, cow it into submission and take it away from its goals. They are using the foreign exchange as a weapon.
Comment: Basically, any action deemed hostile can be defined as terrorism; another reason to avoid the term.
(2) Victor Davis Hanson makes a compelling case at "Hate-Crime Legislation Is a Good Idea That Went Bad" to scuttle the category of hate crimes along with that of terrorism.
Mar. 19, 2017 update: Another reason why I don't use the word terrorist: An Egyptian official tells a social media activist, "If you are tweeting, you are like a terrorist."