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Lexicon: The Language of Terrorism Is Failing Us

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, another debate has begun over whether to label mass murder as terrorism

The Language of Terrorism Is Failing Us Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When a word or phrase suddenly and (sometimes) unexpectedly hits our collective consciousness, you cannot stop hearing or reading it. Lexicon is The Ringer’s running guide to collecting and defining these terms, and sometimes tracing their origins. It’s a never-ending pursuit, but one we’re happy to entertain.

It’s incredibly satisfying to call a bad thing by its proper name. A villain is a villain. Murder is murder. Evil is evil. Recently, in the aftermath of the mass killing in Las Vegas, this process of naming began. The heinous act was terrorism. Maybe. Or maybe not.

There is no consensus definition of the word “terrorism,” only disputes over how and when to use it. The shooting is the newest focal point of this semantic jousting. “The Las Vegas Shooting Is Terrorism,” GQ declared, pointing out, correctly, that the actions of the gunman fit within the state of Nevada’s legal definition of terrorism. The New York Times classified the massacre as “Terrorizing if Not Clearly Terrorist,” stating that a terrorist act requires a political, ideological, or religious motive, and that the gunman’s unknown goal for the killing made the label inappropriate. President Donald Trump has been denounced for not referring to the attack as terrorism. Yet Masha Gessen, a dogged critic of Trump, cautioned against describing the killings as “terrorism,” echoing the Times. “The fact that people are terrorized doesn’t necessarily mean that an act of terror has been committed,” she wrote for The New Yorker.

Even if the gunman had lived and given authorities a note detailing a hateful motive for murdering as many innocent people as possible to further a political ideology, it would not mean he would be charged at the federal level with terrorism. To be charged with terrorism, a person has to be linked to one of the groups that the U.S. State Department has classified as a foreign terror organization, including the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. This is why, even though Charleston, South Carolina, shooter Dylann Roof announced his intentions of starting a race war by committing mass murder, an objective clearly aligned with the ideology of white supremacy, he was not charged with terrorism.

“Tell me what you think about terrorism, and I tell you who you are,” the historian J. Bowyer Bell said. He was considered an expert on the subject, and yet Bell knew that the label is arbitrary and slippery, prone to subjective shifts in meaning. The concept of terrorism came into mainstream use during the French Revolution, during revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre’s “reign of terror,” in which his government conducted mass public executions. It is worth noting that the word originally applied to acts of violence perpetrated by state actors rather than against the state. It was later used to describe actions by French and Russian anarchists during the 1890s, flipping the aggressor/victim relationship on its head. A revolutionary 19th-century Russian group called Narodnaya Volya (“The People’s Will”), which assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, openly referred to itself as a terrorist organization, according to Oxford historian Adam Roberts. “Terrorism continued for many decades to be associated primarily with the assassination of political leaders and heads of state,” Roberts wrote in 2001. The historical focus on political assassinations is evidence of how much the word’s meaning has changed, as most modern interpretations of “terrorism” emphasize the goal of random civilian casualties, not targeted hits on politicians.

Today, the Global Terrorism Database, an open-source project started by University of Maryland researchers, acknowledges that it does not have a singular definition of the thing it seeks to quantify. It is not the only organization unable to settle on a pat answer to the question: The League of Nations struggled to define terrorism in 1937, and never did. The tumult of World War II soon paused the conversation.

After the war, continued global conflict added another layer of ambiguity, as colonies undergoing populist revolts and independence movements sought to dismiss revolutionary factions as terroristic. In his book Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman wrote that “countries as diverse as Israel, Kenya, Cyprus and Algeria, for example, owe their independence at least in part to nationalist political movements that employed terrorism against colonial powers.”

Spurred by acts of violence against Israelis at Lod Airport and at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the United Nations passed its first General Assembly resolution that broadly tackled terrorism that same year—but it did not land on an agreed-upon definition for the word itself.

It was during this time that some of the fiercest debates took place, including over whether the term was fairly applied to non-state actors using violence in their efforts to achieve autonomy. “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist,” Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat told the United Nations in 1974, “lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers and the colonialists, cannot possibly be called terrorist.”

While international debates around the definition of terrorism sprang up intermittently during the end of the past century, the term became an inescapable buzzword after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. What had been a concern limited to the national security establishment became America’s consuming obsession. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” President George W. Bush declared in a speech to Congress that September, shortly after his administration coined the phrase “war on terror.” The United States Patriot Act expanded governmental power considerably one month after the attack, under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Despite leaning on the word to balloon its legal reach into the private lives of its citizens, the United States government still does not have one definition of terrorism. Instead, various departments in the executive branch apply their own, often contradictory, classification systems. The FBI will consider something terrorism, even if it is not violent, as long as property is damaged and an ideological motive is present. It will also potentially consider attacks on abortion clinics to be terrorism, as PolitiFact pointed out in 2013. The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, includes some cases of political assassination and kidnapping in its definition. The term’s looseness is no coincidence. By keeping the parameters porous, the government gives itself more options to err on the side of maximum force.

“Without a clear definition of what to fight, states can unduly curtail civil rights and suppress political opposition under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” legal scholar Reuven Young wrote in 2006.

While the official parameters for what constitutes terrorism remain fuzzy, recent years have calcified one aspect of what the government and media describe as terroristic. The term is most frequently used when a mass killing or attempted mass killing is perpetrated by an extremist associated with Islam. In 2016, Adam Ragusea argued at Slate that the term has been too closely linked with a stereotype of violent Muslims to be meaningfully deployed by journalists. “The fact that terrorists has acquired a powerful religious—and specifically Islamic—connotation is substantively consequential. Calling a suspect a terrorist gives authorities enhanced powers to investigate, charge, and punish. Politicians use the T-word to stoke public anxieties and gain support for their policies, or they studiously avoid the word if doing so bolsters a different narrative they fancy,” Ragusea wrote. The word “terrorism” does not imbue a terrible event with meaning or help people understand and process violence, and now that it is yoked in the popular imagination to one category of religious extremism, its primary function is race-based fearmongering.

After an event as unsettling as the Las Vegas shooting, it’s an understandable impulse to look for the harshest possible words to decry the violence. But the idea of terrorism, so muddy and corruptible, is useful only as a way to expand state power, not as a way to understand atrocity. Instead of attempting to broaden the definition, it would be wiser for all us—writers, politicians, citizens, and our governments—to dismiss the term as malleable jargon that has achieved little, and nothing good.