Terror is a name that is never assumed but always tendered. The taxonomy that transforms it from a practice into an identity is always particular. State power designates certain practices as terror and christens those who commit them as terrorists.
-Joseph Massad, The Persistence of the Palestine Question
We are accused of terrorism
If we defended the land
And the honor of the dust
If we revolted against the rape of our people
And our rape
If we defended the last palm tree in our desert
The last stars in our sky
The last syllabi of our names
The last milk in our mothers’ bosoms
-Nizar Qabbani, “I am with Terrorism”
“Semantic satiation” is the process by which the repetition of a word causes it to temporarily lose meaning, rendering it empty sounds it to ears of the speaker. This process is being performed in front of our eyes (or ears) by media, politicians and the public at large with a particular pernicious word: ‘terrorism.’ According to conventional definitions, terrorism is politically motivated violence aimed at creating terror. However, as more and more violence is being carried out across the world by states, non-state actors and individuals, the use of the word has proliferated in tandem. Whether or not these acts of violence are actually terrorism according to the definition is irrelevant; the word is used regardless. When actual acts of terrorism are carried out therefore, describing them as terrorist seems to be pointless as semantic satiation has rendered the word meaningless.
Well, not meaningless per se. A quick review of when the term is used (and not used) reveals that the word has a distinct meaning, one with a tenuous relationship to its actual definition. Sometimes the word is used in contexts that are not violent. Over recent years, Israel has faced international pressure in the form of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) due to its inhumane policies of oppression and erasure in occupied Palestine. This non-violent movement, modeled on the same effort that was so effective in ending apartheid in South Africa, recognizes that Israel will not end its unjust policies without such pressure. It has been scoring several high profile successes recently and efforts are underway to delegitimize (or even make illegal) calls to boycott Israel. Importantly, a member of the Israeli parliament in June of this year called BDS “diplomatic terrorism” and “terrorism in every sense of the term.” A month later, the Public Security Minister of Israel similarly used the term in a way that had a loose (if we’re being charitable) relationship with its actual definition. Seeking to mandate force-feeding of hunger striking Palestinian political prisoners, he termed hunger strikes “a new type of suicide terrorist attack.”
While both BDS and hunger strikes are certainly politically motivated, they are by no means violent and not aimed at causing terror. Israel also has a penchant for leveling the term at armed resistance amongst Palestinians regardless of the nature of the attack. Therefore a stabbing attack against an armed occupying soldier (which is a military target) and one targeting a civilian are both labeled terrorism. Palestinian stone-throwers are also designated terrorists, an identity tendered by the occupying Israeli army and used to justify extrajudicial killings and arrest. Just as important to understanding the current definition of ‘terrorism’ understanding when the word isn’t used. The two clearest recent examples of politically motivated violence aimed at causing terror were not were the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina and the Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Each of these mass shootings was carried out for political reasons, targeted civilians and was aimed to cause terror. However, neither was termed terrorism in the dominant media discourse.
What we find, therefore, is that term terrorism in fact has a very clear definition. Rather than describing the nature of an attack, ‘terrorism’ in 2015 indicates the nature of the attacker. Terrorism no longer means a politically motivated act of violence meant to create terror. It is a word that is used to distinguish between acts of violence (or political expression) deemed legitimate, rational or justifiable and those deemed illegitimate, irrational or unjustifiable. This distinction is almost always based on the national affiliation or religious identity of the attacker. Therefore BDS, as political expression promoted by Palestinians, is unjustifiable and illegitimate terrorism. At the same time however, a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic by a white man (who was taken into custody alive), is not categorized by the dominant discourse as either illegitimate or irrational. His race and religion preclude this. As Massad describes above, the “practice” of terrorism has become an identity. That identity is only given by state power and media to certain people. All of this is not to say that the attacks in Paris, Beirut and daily in Iraq are not terrorism. They very clearly are. Perhaps, however, until the word can be freed of its racial and Islamophobic connotations, it is better to use a different word.