When the British Broadcasting Corporation, the world’s largest news operation, decided in January not to call the gunmen who attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo terrorists, this made an impression on me.
The head of the BBC Arabic service, Tarik Kafala, explained its reasoning: “Terrorism is such a loaded word. The U.N. has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are, and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like ‘terrorist,’ which people will see as value-laden.”
If the BBC and the U.N. cannot define this little word, neither can anyone else, including politicians, the police and specialists. One study, titled “Political Terrorism,” lists 109 definitions for terrorism and debates over its meaning. The concept just involves too many moving parts — personnel, weapons, tactics, networks, and goals.
An American security specialist, David Tucker, urges those who would define it instead to simply “abandon hope,” like those entering hell. His Israeli counterpart, Boaz Ganor, jokes that “the struggle to define terrorism is sometimes as hard as the struggle against terrorism itself.”
Does it make sense to soldier on, fighting a semantic battle that will never be won? Why argue for a word that everyone agrees is confusing and some find loaded?
Therefore, I too have stopped using “terrorism” and “terrorist” (“counterterrorism,” however, is a tougher word to drop). It’s not worth the fight. Better to use words like “violent,” “murderous,” “Islamist,” and “jihadi,” words that do not generate a definitional uproar. Better not to have to waste time arguing that the U.S. or Israeli governments are not terrorist.
Worse, this argument over terrorism diverts attention from the important fact, which is destruction and murder. Rather than have a debate whether an act of violence meets some theoretical threshold, let’s focus on the real problems.
I have written and spoken some 200 times about terrorism and I argued over decades for its coherent use. My Washington Post letter to the editor on this topic in 1984 will attest to that. As recently as last October, I co-authored an article arguing that the legal and financial implications of the word “terrorism” require that it have “a precise and accurate definition, consistently applied.” My new view is that legal and financial documents should be re-written without the term terrorism.
It has been five months now since these words fell out of my vocabulary, long enough to be able to report that my analyses hold up and my political efforts are undimmed. In fact, I am better off unburdened of it and its vocabulary debates. You would be too.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Hayom