Defining "Terrorism" Down?

  • "Terrorists" or "Insurgents?"
  • Is Iraq in a 'civil war?'
  • Are we engaged in a 'surge' or an 'escalation?'

  • Are Islamists "suicide bombers" or "homicide bombers?"

    Words shape our views on various political issues, and therefore make for many linguistic turf battles. If you don't believe me, ask George Lakoff or Frank Luntz – two leading experts on different sides of the political aisle who study this phenomenon. (Luntz looks more at terminology; Lakoff at underlying themes, or 'frames.')

    So it was very interesting to read Sunday's New York Times, where it was reported that England – which awhile back gave up the ghost on the terminology of the "Global War on Terror," opting for "The Long War" – is now making it their official practice to not refer to Islamic extremists with bombs and plots and violent plans as "terrorists." Rather, they're now common 'criminals.':

    When terrorists tried to blow up civilians in London and Glasgow, Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister, responded in his own distinctive way. What had just been narrowly averted, he said, was not a new jihadist act of war but instead a criminal act. As if to underscore the point, Brown instructed his ministers that the phrase "war on terror" was no longer to be used and, indeed, that officials were no longer even to employ the word "Muslim" in connection with the terrorism crisis. In remarks to reporters, Brown's new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, articulated the basic message. "Let us be clear," she said, "terrorists are criminals, whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religions."
    Might this 'reverse psychology' prove effective against terrorists? Could such a rhetorical yawn frustrate those considering engaging in political violence? And would American media outlets ever consider tamping down their coverage of plots, bombings and even 'gut feelings?' Unlikely, as Brian Lowry of Variety pointed out last week:
    Terrorism, by contrast, is a tactic to wreak psychological havoc against more powerful foes. And in cable's hyperventilating reaction to every whiff of a threat -- real, imagined or "gut feeling," as Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff recently put it -- the forces employing those methods were either stunningly prescient about media trends once cable news sprouted second and third heads or, more likely, stumbled into this nurturing environment...

    Addicted to this adrenaline rush, the news channels unwittingly reward nebulous plots with the sort of overwhelming response normally reserved for Paris Hilton.

    I've written in other forums that terrorists' main targets are less the victims of the individual acts they perpetrate than the audience exposed to them. Perhaps broadcast media outlets should discuss the merits of Gordon Brown's approach. If such a minor recalibration of the language involved – by both the media and political leaders – could make the slightest difference in the global war on terror, the long war, or whatever you'd like to call it, it's worth considering.