Tuesday, February 23, 2010

they mean terrorism in that capital T way

Salon | In sum: a Muslim who attacks military targets, including in war zones or even in their own countries that have been invaded by a foreign army, are Terrorists. A non-Muslim who flies an airplane into a government building in pursuit of a political agenda is not, or at least is not a Real Terrorist with a capital T -- not the kind who should be tortured and thrown in a cage with no charges and assassinated with no due process. Nor are Christians who stand outside abortion clinics and murder doctors and clinic workers. Nor are acts undertaken by us or our favored allies designed to kill large numbers of civilians or which will recklessly cause such deaths as a means of terrorizing the population into desired behavioral change -- the Glorious Shock and Awe campaign and the pummeling of Gaza. Except as a means for demonizing Muslims, the word is used so inconsistently and manipulatively that it is impoverished of any discernible meaning.

All of this would be an interesting though not terribly important semantic matter if not for the fact that the term Terrorist plays a central role in our political debates. It is the all-justifying term for anything the U.S. Government does. Invasions, torture, due-process-free detentions, military commissions, drone attacks, warrantless surveillance, obsessive secrecy, and even assassinations of American citizens are all justified by the claim that it's only being done to "Terrorists," who, by definition, have no rights. Even worse, one becomes a "Terrorist" not through any judicial adjudication or other formal process, but solely by virtue of the untested, unchecked say-so of the Executive Branch. The President decrees someone to be a Terrorist and that's the end of that: uncritical followers of both political parties immediately justify anything done to the person on the ground that he's a Terrorist (by which they actually mean: he's been accused of being one, though that distinction -- between presidential accusations and proof -- is not one they recognize).

If we're really going to vest virtually unlimited power in the Government to do anything it wants to people they call "Terrorists," we ought at least to have a common understanding of what the term means. But there is none. It's just become a malleable, all-justifying term to allow the U.S. Government carte blanche to do whatever it wants to Muslims it does not like or who do not like it (i.e., The Terrorists). It's really more of a hypnotic mantra than an actual word: its mere utterance causes the nation blindly to cheer on whatever is done against the Muslims who are so labeled.

UPDATE: I want to add one point: the immediate official and media reaction was to avoid, even deny, the term "terrorist" because the perpetrator of the violence wasn't Muslim. But if Stack's manifesto begins to attract serious attention, I think it's likely the term Terrorist will be decisively applied to him in order to discredit what he wrote. His message is a sharply anti-establishment and populist grievance of the type that transcends ideological and partisan divisions -- the complaints which Stack passionately voices are found as common threads in the tea party movement and among citizens on both the Left and on the Right -- and thus tend to be the type which the establishment (which benefits from high levels of partisan distractions and divisions) finds most threatening and in need of demonization. Nothing is more effective at demonizing something than slapping the Terrorist label onto it.