Defining Terrorism in the 21st Century
The world, it seems, is overrun with violence and terror. One only needs to read or watch the news, and daily hear of this or that atrocity against people perpetrated by fellow humans. In wartimes, in civil unrest, in times of dire need, we look on with a certain distracted and judgmental stare at the violence and killing and death, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the whole world is spiraling into a chaos of rape, murder and war. We see, from a distant but first hand perspective, western troops on the front line of Afghan firefights, the Bangladeshi protests asking for the beheading of bloggers, and the civil unrest as the middle-east overthrows its power structures. And we watch on, while sipping tea in our comfortable homes, a million miles away from the “action” that seems to be the fodder of the “news” outlets. It is horrible, sure, but most of us are so far removed from any of this that it ceases to be information, and is only served up as a form of morbid entertainment.
Most of the time, we fail to react, excepting for a sad shake of the head and a few dishonest words about how horrible it all is. However, there is one word, a cliche of mainstream society, which will be sure to get a reaction.
It’s a term which gets thrown around like Frisbee, from one news outlet to another, from politician to politician, and elicits a strong and impassioned response, especially in The West. It creates an undercurrent of distrust among people, and is gobbled up by the populace like a delicious dessert. If we are to believe what we are told, terrorism is the biggest threat to our way of life in the 21st century, and it is rife, and everywhere.
The happenings in Woolwich last week were quickly labelled “terrorism”, but why? What constitutes this term, and how do we make a decision between what is a deliberate “terror attack” and a horrible situation with seriously deluded and unstable assailants? When does murder become terror, and what do we gain or lose when labeling a horrendous act as “terrorism”?
As always, we need to look at the word, and its accepted meanings before we can make any decisions about whether it is being used correctly or not. The “World English Dictionary” defines terrorism as:
1. systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal 2. the act of terrorizing 3. the state of being terrorized
Certainly these criteria have been met when looking at cases like 9/11, the Unabomber or the Bali-bombings, but does the case in Woolwich meet the criteria? And what triggered the knee-jerk reaction to label it terrorism in the first place?
The Woolwich assailants are both dark-skinned Londoners, both Muslim men, both muttering or screaming the name of the Islamic god while perpetrating the heinous act. They decapitated a man in a busy city street, and with blood on their hands, warned others that this would be their fate too. Using their religious beliefs as a platform, and the political situation in Afghanistan as an excuse, they killed a man, a British soldier, in broad daylight. But is this “terrorism”?
At a casual glance it would seem that the blatant use of the word “terrorism” comes to the fore when any of these criteria are met:
- A man or men of colour
- Being Islamic
We never hear of a “Christian terrorist”, and rarely are the people we label as “terrorists” of Anglo-Saxon descent, and even less commonly are they born and bred in the country where they perpetrate their crimes. If they are, they are labeled as “domestic terrorists”, which takes most of the sting out of the label, and somehow makes them less of a threat. The power of the word “terrorist” is only amplified if somehow the perpetrator is removed from the populace at large, either by race, religion or nationality. Terror is more of a threat if it comes from afar.
Timothy McVeigh, a white American man, who in 1995 killed 168 people and injured hundreds in Oklahoma City, is notorious in American history. Labelled a “domestic terrorist”, his single act of “terrorism” has only been surpassed on American soil, in terms of scale and human mortality, by the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. But he was neither a Muslim, nor a “foreigner”, and while his deeds were horrendous, it appears that the “threat from within” is something we need not worry about when compared to the “threat from outside”. McVeigh was a non-practising agnostic Catholic, and he perpetrated his act with a particular political target in mind: The “tyrannical US Government”. He doesn’t fit the mold of “today’s terrorist”, and therefore is problematic in terms of the media portrayal of exactly what constitutes “terrorism”. But this was, without doubt, an actual act of terrorism in the proper use of the term.
If a crime is to be labelled “terrorism” if a particular political or social agenda is at the root of the crime, why then do we not label the shootings in schools or universities as “terrorism”? The “École Polytechnique massacre” of 1989, where Marc LePine shot and killed 14 people, all because of his hatred of “feminism”, was not labeled an act of “terrorism”, even though he clearly had an agenda for doing so. I do not see the Woolwich killing as very different from the Montreal massacre, except in the case of Woolwich, the basis for the act was attributed to the doctrines of Islam. This makes all the difference in how we label the act.
What is most striking about the Woolwich case is the apparent ease with which it was labelled a “terrorist attack”. London has had its fair share of actual terrorist attacks, from the numerous IRA attacks in the 20th Century, to the 2005 Islamic attack, London is a hotbed of terrorist activity in the west. It is no wonder that “terrorism” springs to mind any time people are brazenly killed on the streets. What happened in Woolwich, however was something else.
Not to belittle the horrible incident in Woolwich, I would go so far as to say that the label “terrorist” was immediately given to these two men because of the factors of their race and religion, and was only confirmed later that terrorism was their actual intent. They proclaimed that their act was political, but it seems it was not backed by any “known terrorist group”, nor is it clear what their actual political agenda was. Muslim clerics have denounced the act, saying that the attack has “no place in Islam”. One particular story, by Muslim writer Tarek Fatah for The Huffington Post, goes so far as to address the roots of the seemingly endless string of Islamic attacks worldwide. He writes:
Unless the leaders of British mosques as well as the Islamic organizations in the U.K. denounce the doctrine of jihad as pronounced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, and distance themselves from the ideology of Qutb, al-Banna and Maudoodi, they stand complicit in the havoc that these jihadis are raining down on the rest of us.
Sane and rational people do not hack the head off a soldier in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Sane and rational people do not blow up a building with the hopes of killing as many as possible, or start shooting indiscriminately in a university classroom. One has to be at least slightly unhinged to do something like that. But for a sane and rational person to justify an act of this kind, a religious text full of acts of barbarism seems as good an excuse as any, be it Judaism, Christian or Muslim.
Without doubt, the attack in Woolwich was intended as a “terrorist attack”, and that the men involved are actual “terrorists”, but does this act of terrorism arise from the Islamic faith, or is it something arising from the society we find ourselves in? I’d say it has to be a combination of both, and that the undercurrent armed “jihadi” movement that so many see as walking hand-in-hand with Islam is just the trigger, or excuse, for the disenfranchised to feel justified and redeemed.