On defining “terrorism”

December 11, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More

Glenn Greenwald once again finds that the United States defines its terms, in this case, “terrorism,” in strangely specialized ways:

Few things better illustrate the utter meaninglessness of the word Terrorism than applying it to a citizen of an invaded country for fighting back against the invading army and aiming at purely military targets (this is far from the first time that Iraqis and others who were accused of fighting back against the invading U.S. military have been formally deemed to be Terrorists for having done so). To the extent the word means anything operationally, it is: he who effectively opposes the will of the U.S. and its allies.

This topic is so vital because this meaningless, definition-free word — Terrorism — drives so many of our political debates and policies. Virtually every debate in which I ever participate quickly and prominently includes defenders of government policy invoking the word as some sort of debate-ending, magical elixir: of course President Obama has to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process: they’re Terrorists; of course we have to stay in Afghanistan: we have to stop The Terrorists; President Obama is not only right to kill people (including civilians) using drones, but is justified in boasting and even joking about it, because they’re Terrorists; of course some people should be held in prison without charges: they’re Terrorists, etc. etc. It’s a word that simultaneously means nothing and justifies everything.

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Category: Language, Orwellian, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Chris Hedges is suing Barack Obama regarding the National Defense Authorization Act. The act allows the indefinite detention of American Citizens for ill-defined actions and beliefs:

    The real purpose of this bill is to thwart internal, domestic movements that threaten the corporate state. The definition of a terrorist is already so amorphous under the Patriot Act that there are probably a few million Americans who qualify to be investigated if not locked up. Consider the arcane criteria that can make you a suspect in our new military-corporate state. The Department of Justice considers you worth investigating if you are missing a few fingers, if you have weatherproof ammunition, if you own guns or if you have hoarded more than seven days of food in your house. Adding a few of the obstructionist tactics of the Occupy movement to this list would be a seamless process. On the whim of the military, a suspected “terrorist” who also happens to be a U.S. citizen can suffer extraordinary rendition—being kidnapped and then left to rot in one of our black sites “until the end of hostilities.” Since this is an endless war that will be a very long stay.

    This demented “war on terror” is as undefined and vague as such a conflict is in any totalitarian state. Dissent is increasingly equated in this country with treason. Enemies supposedly lurk in every organization that does not chant the patriotic mantras provided to it by the state. And this bill feeds a mounting state paranoia. It expands our permanent war to every spot on the globe. It erases fundamental constitutional liberties. It means we can no longer use the word “democracy” to describe our political system.

    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/why_im_suing_barack_obama_20120116/

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    New Glenn Greenwald column shows that “terrorists” are people the U.S. deems to be bad, and we hand out death sentences like candy on Halloween.

    But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

    and consider this:

    “Earlier today, I wrote about one specific revelation from the article that I most wanted to highlight — the way in which Obama, in order to conceal the civilian casualties he causes and justify the raining down of death he orders, has re-defined “militant” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone”

    http://www.salon.com/writer/glenn_greenwald/

  3. usman says:

    Erich, you have it right in this and other places where I’ve seen you write about terrorism. I am afraid that the ambiguity over the word, and how governments and individuals around the world apply it is going to lead to more disasters, not a solution.
    Even here in Pakistan, where I live, we use the word as a filler. Anyone can be a terrorist depending on the narrative the speaker employs. To me any force political, religious, social, or military that targets civilians is a terrorist. Of course there are other variations, but this is the easiest definition I can employ broadly.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    “An unnamed Pakistani official identically told Agence France-Presse that a second US drone “fired two missiles at the site of this morning’s attack, where militants were removing the wreckage of their two destroyed vehicles”. (Those killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan are more or less automatically deemed “militants” by unnamed “officials”, and then uncritically called such by most of the western press – a practice that inexcusably continues despite revelations that the Obama administration has redefined “militants” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone”.)”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/20/us-drones-strikes-target-rescuers-pakistan

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