Salon Radio: Manipulative use of the term “Terrorism”

A political scientist explains the propagandistic and definition-free application of this word

Topics: Terrorism, Washington, D.C.,

There’s a great paradox in the American political landscape:  the word that is used most frequently to justify everything from invasions and bombings to torture, indefinite detention, and the sprawling Surveillance State — Terrorism — is also the most ill-defined and manipulated word.  It has no fixed meaning, and thus applies to virtually anything the user wishes to demonize, while excluding the user’s own behavior and other acts one seeks to justify.  All of this would be an interesting though largely academic, semantic matter if not for the central political significance with which this term is vested:  both formally (in our law) and informally (in our political debates and rhetoric).

Remi Brulin, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at NYU, has spent many years — as part of his PhD dissertation at the Sorbonne in Paris — examining the use of the word Terrorism in international relations, the law, and the media (particularly as used by The New York Times).  The history of this term — how and why it came to be such a politically prominent and consequential label, the radically inconsistent meaning it has based on who is wielding it, the failure to create a universally or even widely recognized definition — reveals how long it has been manipulated as a propagandistic tool.  

Of course, “the War on Terror” era has made this manipulation even more blatant and destructive — attacks by Muslims even when aimed at purely military targets (Fort Hood or even armies invading their own countries) are automatically deemed “Terrorism,” while attacks designed by the U.S., Israel and their allies with the clear purpose of terrorizing civilian populations into submission are not (nor is it Terrorism when a non-Muslim American flies his plane into the side of a government building or randomly shoots Pentagon police for political ends). 

But the deceit inherent in that inconsistent application has been going on for several decades — from the Israeli attempt in the 1970s to universalize their local disputes under the rubric of that term, to America’s arming of the Nicaraguan contras, El Salvadoran death squads and even the Iranian regime in the 1980s, to the decades-long and ongoing games of who is (and is not) declared a “state sponsor of terror.”  Interestingly, while many leading Senate Democrats and many establishment media outlets routinely and publicly accused the U.S. of being a “state sponsor of terrroism” in the 1980s (primarily by virtue of its actions in Central America), the very mention of such a possibility is now one of the greatest taboos.

Brulin is my guest today on Salon Radio to discuss these matters, and the 30-minute discussion — which I genuinely found fascinating — can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below (as always, the podcast can be downloaded in MP3 here, and ITunes here).  A transcript is here.

I want to make one related point about the contentious exchange I had several weeks ago with various Newsweek editors (both publicly and via email) concerning their internal discussion of the meaning of Terrorism, an exchange I was unable to address fully at the time because I was traveling.  As a result of various email exchanges, I was persuaded that several (though not all) of the Newsweek editors who clearly appeared to be themselves endorsing highly biased definitions of the term were, in fact, intending to describe ironically how the term is typically used by others (that includes Managing Editor Kathy Jones, who defended herself here).  I explicitly noted that possibility in what I first wrote, and now re-affirm the point I made about it:  large media outlets such as Newsweek play a significant role in how the term Terrorism is used and understood (they are not innocent bystanders, or mere “messengers,” as they tried to claim).  What was most striking about Newsweek‘s three-day discussion of what is and is not Terrorism was that virtually nobody attempted to define what the term meant.

It is that lack of definition that is the source of most of the mischief.  The reason no clear definition of Terrorism is ever settled upon is because it’s virtually impossible to embrace a definition without either (a) excluding behavior one wishes to demonize and thus include and/or (b) including behavior (including one’s own and those of one’s friends) which one desperately wants to exclude.  As Brulin explains, this dilemma is often “resolved” by countries trying to create definitions that simply bar the possibility that they themselves could ever engage in Terrorism (as exemplified by the long-standing efforts of the U.S. to insist that Terrorism is, by definition, something that only non-state actors can engage in, even as it labels other governments “state sponsors of terrorism”).  But media outlets such as Newsweek shouldn’t be parties to those propagandistic efforts; if they’re going to use the term — and they do, promiscuously — they ought first to decide what it means and then apply it consistently or, if that can’t be done, refrain from using it (as Reuters, rare among Western media outlets, has commendably attempted to do).

The discussion with Brulin is here:

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Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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