In terms of twisting the English language into a ludicrous Orwellian mockery of itself in order to short circuit critical thinking, this has been a particularly good week. My favorite part so far has been the part where respectable leftists writers have been arguing that the already arbitrary application of the label “terrorist” should now be rendered even more arbitrary. I’m not talking about establishment liberals in corporatist papers like The New York Times. I’m talking writers who I generally respect, and fearless, adversarial outlets like The Intercept and CounterPunch.
For example, in his essay on Wednesday, The NRA’s Latest Terrorist Attack on U.S. Soil, Paul Street argues that the “terrorist” label should be applied, not just to the Las Vegas shooter, but also to the NRA. Here, I believe, is the crux of his argument:
“I am aware that the formal definition of terrorism involves the use of violence to achieve a political objective – a ruthless means to political ends(s). Does the actual shooter have to be a member of the terrorist organization – in this case, by my analysis, the NRA – and on board with its agenda? No, not when it comes to advancing the NRA’s political goals. All that’s required is that he kills a lot of people.”
This, of course, is the very same logic employed by the media and the intelligence community when they label any mass murdering psycho who claims to be part of some terrorist group that he has never had any contact with a “suddenly self-radicalized terrorist.” These would be folks like Omar Mateen, Mohamed Salmene Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, Khalid Masood, and assorted other killers, who I have personally designated “non-terrorist terrorists,” due to the inconvenient fact that they appear to have had no connection to terrorism prior to deciding to kill a lot of people. But whatever … according to Paul Street’s logic, and the logic of the “intelligence community,” a person doesn’t need to be a member of any actual terrorist group, or be otherwise connected to terrorism, to be officially designated a “terrorist.”
And if that kind of reasoning seems less than convincing, Binoy Kampmark, in his Wednesday essay, What’s in a Word? Terrorism in Las Vegas, offers the following justification for deeming the Las Vegas perpetrator a “terrorist”:
“The Nevada statute should have provided ample guidance to the authorities about what had transpired: ‘an act of terrorism means any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.’ Down pat, precise, unquestionable.”
Well, gosh, if the legislature of the State of Nevada has passed a law enabling the authorities to designate any mass murderer a “terrorist,” I guess that should be good enough for us. Who can argue with the law, after all? Let’s all just pray that the Nevada legislature doesn’t declare some activist group that we happen to support “domestic terrorists” because they’re trying to “coerce the general population” by causing “bodily harm” to someone.
And it’s not just my fellow CounterPunch contributors who’ve been going, shall we say, a little overboard. Tim Dickenson, in his Rolling Stone piece, It’s Time to Politicize the Terror Attack in Las Vegas, reiterates Street and Kampmark’s arguments, or they reiterate his, or something. Shaun King, in a piece in The Intercept, The White Privilege of the ‘Lone Wolf ‘ Shooter, treats the subject with a bit more nuance, but the impression we are left with is basically the same; if not for the fact that the Las Vegas shooter was white, he would have been deemed a “terrorist.” Which is true, of course, but beside the point.
While I appreciate these writers’ frustration with the biased application of the “terrorist” label, helping the intelligence community expand the definition of “terrorist” to the point where they can just slap it onto anyone seems a bit reckless and … well, not so intelligent. It’s kind of like arguing that because the police have been killing unarmed African Americans, the thing to do is demand that they also start killing unarmed white Americans, you know, just to keep things fair. Call me what you want, but this isn’t an argument I can enthusiastically get behind. Apart from the blatant absurdity of it, and the naked authoritarianism of it, there’s also this hang up I have with words, i.e., how I want them to actually mean things.
Emotionally loaded terms like “terrorism” don’t mean anything. Their value is strategic. They are labels used by the ruling classes to designate violence that they haven’t sanctioned. When Trump, or Obama, orders a drone to bomb some wedding party in Afghanistan and vaporizes an entire family, or when the IDF kills another kid for throwing rocks at a wall or something, this violence does not qualify as terrorism. On the other hand, if some Muslim guy, who just happens to be struggling with his sexual preferences, decides to mass murder a lot of people, and glorify his murder/suicide by claiming he is doing it for ISIS … well, sure, that definitely qualifies as terrorism. And when the mother of some other idiot who goes to Syria to join the terrorists the CIA is helping try to overthrow the Syrian government wires her son a couple thousand Euros, she is sent to prison for “financing terrorism.” And then there is the current corporate effort to eliminate “extremist” views on the Internet, and the intelligence agencies’ classification of Antifa as “domestic terrorists.” These are just some of the many examples of how the ruling classes are using these terms (i.e, “terrorism,” “extremism,” etc.) to demonize anyone they want to demonize, and keep people living in a state of fear, so that they have no time for critical thinking, which is what these terms are designed to do.
And now, in response to the Las Vegas massacre, leftists are demanding that the perpetrator, Stephen Paddock, be labeled a “terrorist,” because he furthers the NRA’s political goals, or simply because he shot a lot of people. Well, sure, I mean, why the hell not? If we can argue that violence isn’t actual violence, because it’s preemptive self-defense against Nazis, whose speech is violence because they’re Nazis, we can probably get away with this one. And heck, why should we stop with Paddock? Couldn’t we, employing the same sort of logic, argue that every NRA member, and anyone who voted for Trump (who, after all, is a white supremacist and thus a terrorist by definition) … that all these people are also terrorists? Maybe, if we got enough Facebook likes, we could write to the Homeland Security folks and demand that they start up another terrorist database, or otherwise monitor these people’s behavior.
Or maybe I’m just over-reacting, and criticizing my fellow leftists unjustly. It probably doesn’t really matter what words like “terrorist” actually mean, or what kind of authoritarian sentiment or convoluted Orwellian logic we promote in our alternative left-wing essays. By the time that Google and Facebook get finished cleansing the Internet of “extremist content,” and “terrorist-related content,” and every other type of content they have demonized with some meaningless label designed to shut off critical thinking and appeal to people’s raw emotions, no one will be reading us anyway … except for the terrorists and extremists, of course.
(first published in CounterPunch, October 6, 2017)
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