Words are powerful. Sticks and stones may well break bones but words sow the seeds of doubt, fear, anger and every other emotion that makes people behave in strange and unpleasant ways.
Words with fuzzy meanings that often stay hidden when they shouldn’t and crop up where they are not needed are powerful. These words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid of are also dangerous. They are the words who grant authority to those who use them and instil fear in those who hear them. There is an unspoken assumption that whoever is brave enough to use them is best suited to confront their consequences and so often we fail to remark when the repercussions of these words are as brutal as the words themselves.
One of these words is terrorism. Few of us really know what terrorism is but we are sure that its gravity is unparalleled. Terrorists are dangerous, evil, soulless monsters. We take no risks with terrorists because they are crazy, their ideology is incomprehensible and they will do anything to anyone with no remorse.
Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial or unauthorised violence for political aims. This is not exactly the apocalyptic description of the clash of civilisations we now associate with the word, but a very accurate description nonetheless. Historically, terrorists have had very little in common in terms of their ideology, their stature during their era or their remaining legacy. Take Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini or King Leopold II of Belgium as examples. International heroes, cult heroes or brutal dictators according to history, but all terrorists according to their contemporaries. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims as many freedom fighters and/or dictators do.
The words terrorist and terrorism have become so mutated in the media today that we no longer have any idea of when it is appropriate to apply them. A while ago Russell Brand pointed out that 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 Lee Rigby’s murder, the “Sydney Siege” and #Leytonstone have all been blindly considered cases of terrorism which have inevitably propelled a climate of fear, the real victims of which will always be any and everyone who follows Islam.
We are quick to pick up on how crazy these terrorist monsters are but we are slow to have a real conversation about mental health and its effects on these cases. The fact that the family of the perpetrator of the attack in Leytonstone last week had tried to have him sectioned because he was so unwell was a lot slower to catch people’s attention than the relationship he had with his religion. Which of those two elements was more of a driving force in this event?
If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I tried to kill you screaming that it was for socialism, would your first thought be that I am a terrorist or that I am insane? A white man in Charleston shoots up a church in the name of white supremacy. Mental health. A white man in Tesco stabs a member of the public in the name of white supremacy. Barely even makes news. Man in a tube station stabs a passenger in the name of Syria, it’s declared a political act within hours and the Prime Minister finds it worthy of saying both the word “ain’t” and “bruv” in one sentence. Sorry, what just happened?
Whether the actions of Sydney’s Man Haron Monis, Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo or last week’s perpetrator constitute uses of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims is anyone’s guess. Perhaps some were wholly clear in their political aims perhaps others were simply not capable of executing a political agenda due to their mental state. What is truly worrying about the way this situation is being addressed are the actions taken through counter-terrorism with the complicity of the citizens who live in fear of their neighbours because of stories like these being framed as a part of some kind of wider war.
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. The average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack.
The word terrorism has become synonymous with war on ‘our’ soil which invokes a trans-national mesmerising panic. This fear of ‘terrorism’ is so tangible that support for anything being done that ‘keeps people safe’ is seen as a necessity. Fuelling this fear by rushing to place this label on events that may or may not have considered political intention is reckless and manipulative.
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. Today, the government program Prevent which civil servants are legally obliged to partake in permits a seriously worrying encroachment on the civil liberties of Muslims in the UK. The fear of something whose actual threat is almost impossible to gauge has led to an aggressive and punitive policy that silences the voices of Muslims all over the country. And all this begins with a word. If we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, we can finally begin to liberate ourselves from the fear that is so often used to acquire our silent compliance.
Please note: this is an edit of an earlier work. The original can be found here.