Genocide, Terrorism and how to overcome your fear of words

A Response to the Sydney Siege

Recently I published an article featuring details of the Cófan people’s fight to survive in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In an earlier draft I included the word genocide. Later, I removed it for fear that upon reading it people would recoil, not knowing how to react to such an ugly word and begin to doubt each and every other word on the page. Words are powerful like that. Let me clarify, I, like many others, believe that a wide variety of states, people and organisations contributed to the genocide of the Amazonian people over hundreds of years.

Genocide is when one group of people attack another group of people (with the same race, religion or ethnicity) with the intention of wiping at least some of them out. The UN definition is of course far wordier than this, so many of us may be confused as to what genocide actually is, but we do know that it’s bad. Really bad, far worse than anything else we’re used to seeing in the news, for sure. But let me reframe this for you. A life is a life and a death is a death. So, if a group of 1,000 are wiped out in genocide, is that automatically worse than a war that kills hundreds of thousands civilians? It seems cold to say I know, and I completely accept the argument that the loss of an entire group is the loss not just of human life but of a culture, a language and all they have to offer the world. This is even more pertinent in the case of the people of the Amazon who have more knowledge about the planet’s most complicated ecosystem than I can even imagine. But I can’t help but feel that this isn’t what pricks your discomfort at hearing the word.

The holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War was genocide. After this incident over a hundred countries, including my own, signed a document called the genocide convention, which explained what genocide was and stated that should another genocide ever occur they were obliged under international law to do something about it. There have been other genocides since the holocaust such as that of Rwanda in 1994 and of Darfur, Sudan which began in 2003, and in each case there was massive hesitation to throw the g-word at it specifically because of the huge obligation it entails. After the world sat and did nothing during the crisis in Rwanda, which was largely deemed preventable, Darfur should have been the chance for leaders of  the world to show their commitment to the humanitarian side of international cooperation. However the ‘conflict’ that began in early 2003 wasn’t acknowledged by the US congress as genocide until July 2004. A year was spent deliberating and analysing, politicians as much as journalists carefully avoiding labelling the situation what it was and of course evading the responsibility that it incurs, whilst the situation continued to grow worse and worse. To call a situation genocide is to accuse governments of inaction. So we the public as much as the press become afraid to use this word whether it reflects the truth or not and journalists, daily, protect governments and your eyes and ears by sticking with synonyms and euphemisms instead.

Words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid to use are powerful. They are the words that curb our opinions because we are sure that whoever is brave enough to use them knows better than we do, and we should let them do whatever that word requires them to.

Another one of these words is terrorism. None of us really know what terrorism is but we’re sure it’s serious. Terrorists are the bad guys. They have beards, they have bombs and they definitely don’t have souls. We take no risks with terrorists because those guys are crazy, they’ll do anything to anyone and you need to support your local intelligence agency in whatever they’re doing because if not it could be you next.

Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims. Kind of a let-down, huh? Of course, the FBI has a far wordier definition which may confuse you and encourage you to give up and leave it to the pros. Just to show you how much terrorists tend to have in common, here you have a list of a few famous terrorists from history, some whose reputation changed with time and others who will forever be remembered as monsters, these include Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini and King Leopold II of Belgium to name a few. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims. Fact.

As Russell Brand pointed out, if he killed a bunch of people and said it was in the name of Christianity he’d be accused of insanity, not terrorism. Yet if a man, with a violent criminal record and a history of mental illness, holds up a café and winds up killing two of his hostages claiming it’s in the name of Islam, millions across the globe decide that this constitutes a political act and begin referring to it as terrorism. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo’s brutal murder of Lee Rigby in the streets of Woolwich last year was labelled a terror attack just hours after it had taken place, because Adebolajo claimed that the fact that Lee Rigby was a soldier meant his murder was an act of war. If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I killed you saying it was in the name of socialism, I would be accused of insanity, not terrorism.

Obviously I’m simplifying, there are many ways to interpret acts of war and acts of terror and terrorism and I encourage you to explore them for yourselves so that you yourself can decide what constitutes a use of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims. I have no idea whether Man Haron Monis or Michael Adebolajo committed the violent acts they did as a political manoeuvre or because they were simply extremely mentally unstable. However, I refuse to start jumping at shadows because someone, somewhere decided to label them terror attacks.

The fear campaign launched by the US media following 9/11 was so intense and so effective that even today 51% of Americans believe that the CIA’s use of torture was justified. This is not because they have no regard for human life, but because the fear of the word terrorism itself, never mind that of another attack, is so tangible that they would support anything being done that kept them safe, despite the fact that the average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack. When a plane crashes, airports reopen the next day. When a terror attack takes place, no one knows where to look, what to say, who to trust or how to manifest the fear that clutches them. You may not know how to manifest it, but there are a lot of people who know how to play on it.

This use of a word which at its root is a synonym for horror, alarm, panic, shock or dread is so powerful that governments and intelligence agencies have been using it for years to launch all kinds of agendas from wars to border control. Yet, if we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, the fear that is so often used to acquire our compliance just evaporates; like anything the best way to overcome your fear of it, is to try and understand it. This week’s attack on 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar has opened up an unprecedented dialogue in the UK where we are seeing the many different ways terrorists can be perceived. This article by Cyril Almeida took a dip into Pakistani politics to analyse just how thin the line can be between freedom fighter and terrorist. I personally hope this spells the end of our tendency to blindly use a word that we know so little about so we can liberate ourselves from fear and see all the shades of grey that lie between.