How the word 'terrorism' lost its meaning: Neil Macdonald

Terrorism is political invective, nothing more. It’s a great favourite of demagogues, widely accepted by audiences, and is almost always applied exclusively to the other, never to ourselves.

Once America began its “War on Terror,” the word was stretched and adapted to mean anything Washington wanted

Today, the word terrorism is so objectively meaningless that the only sensible definition is: "Violence we disapprove of." (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

On Feb. 3, President Donald Trump tweeted that "a new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum in Paris." The United States, he added, needed to "GET SMART" and, presumably, get behind his ban on travel from several Muslim-majority, ostensibly terrorist-producing countries.

As it turned out, the master terrorist in question had managed to wound a French soldier with a machete, and not in the famous museum, but in a nearby shopping mall. Furthermore, he was from Egypt, a country excluded from Trump's ban, along with other American-allied centres of extremism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Still, the attack was "radical Islamic terrorism" worthy of a public warning from the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military.

A few days earlier, though, Trump had maintained a public silence when Alexandre Bissonnette, an apparent white nationalist, allegedly opened fire in a Quebec City mosque, slaughtering six innocent people at worship, and wounding 19.

That attack just didn't rise to the bar of public presidential alarm, although Trump did make a private phone call to Justin Trudeau. 

And this week, when the Trump White House handed out a list of what the president termed 78 terrorist attacks the media had deliberately played down or ignored, the Quebec City slaughter was absent.

Other, far less deadly Canadian attacks were on the list: The Quebecer who used his vehicle to run down a Canadian soldier in October 2014, and the attack the same month in Ottawa, in which another man from Quebec killed a reserve soldier in Ottawa, before heading into Parliament where authorities killed him.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo on Parliament Hill. (RCMP/CBC)

What appears to have qualified those attacks for inclusion on the Trump list was the fact that the attackers, Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, had converted from their birth religion to Islam.  

Similarly, Trump's list did not include Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who, in the summer of 2015, pulled out a gun in a black church in Charleston, S.C., and began killing. Roof was a practising Christian, a member of an evangelical Lutheran congregation. Reportedly, he sat and argued about scriptural issues with congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before murdering nine of them.

Still, like Bissonnette, Roof was not labelled a terrorist by law enforcement authorities, or charged as such. He was certainly not called a "radical Christian terrorist" or "white supremacist terrorist." Those are phrases the mainstream media rarely find pronounceable.

The FBI even went so far as to say Roof's killings were "not a political act." 

If that sounds outrageously hypocritical, that's because it is. (Go ahead and imagine the official reaction had Roof or Bissonnette been Muslims).

Western concept of 'terrorism'

But it's perfectly consonant with the Western concept of "terrorism," which is itself a form of hypocrisy deeply embedded in the American and Canadian psyches.

Terrorism is political invective, nothing more. It's a great favourite of demagogues, widely accepted by audiences, and is almost always applied exclusively to the other, never to ourselves.

Take the Irish Republican Army. The IRA was an exclusively Roman Catholic organization, and had no problem killing civilians to advance its agenda. The British government characterized the IRA and all its offshoots as terrorists, but did not for decades apply the label to the equally murderous Protestant "loyalist" paramilitaries.   

The State Department's list of designated terrorist groups has never included the IRA. (Paul McErlane/Reuters)

Some Irish Catholics in Canada and the United States, though, tended to regard the IRA's behaviour as understandable, if not excusable. They preferred not to label it as terrorism, never mind "Christian terrorism," even though the Troubles were all about a schism in Christianity, something like the violent Sunni/Shia fissure in the Middle East. Almost certainly because of domestic American sentiment, the U.S. State Department's long list of designated terrorist groups has never named the IRA

Because the terrorist is always the other.

While working for CBC in Israel, I once searched the database of the Jerusalem Post for uses of the word "terror," "terrorist" and "terrorism." 

There were thousands over the course of several years, all of them relating to Palestinians or other Arabs.

The newspaper had another term for Jewish settlers who targeted and killed Palestinian civilians: "Jewish extremists."  Most mainstream Israeli journalists have just as hard a time with the phrase "Jewish terrorist" as Western media do with "Christian terrorist."

Those two words simply seem a contradiction in terms to many Jews, although, to give the Israeli justice system credit for at least some consistency, authorities there have charged Jewish Israelis with terrorism-related offences.

Until the 9/11 attacks, there was at least an attempt in the West to define terrorism: the deliberate targeting of civilians by non-government players to advance a political agenda.   

By that definition, of course, Alexandre Bissonnette, if convicted, and Dylann Roof would qualify.

War on Terror

But once America began its "War on Terror," the word was stretched and adapted to mean anything Washington wanted it to mean, and the U.S. media fell obediently into line.

Any attack on any U.S. soldier anywhere became terror, even attacks by people whose country had been invaded. 

Groups such as the Shining Path in Peru, or Kurdish ultranationalist groups, or fringe Irish diehards, or Tamil extremists, are relegated to trivial regional annoyances. The predations of militants or governments America approves of are overlooked or ignored.

Today, the word terrorism is so objectively meaningless that the only sensible definition is: "Violence we disapprove of." 

In fact, not using the term terrorism is now conflated with terrorism itself.

Trump message this week was clear and chilling: the mainstream media are conspiring to exculpate terrorists. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Donald Trump has routinely denounced liberals in general and the Obama administration in particular for refusing to say "radical Islamic terror."

This past week, he took it a step further, declaring that the media is part of the conspiracy, deliberately ignoring the 78 attacks on his list.

"In many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it," Trump said. "They have their reasons, and you understand that."

It was nonsense; the media had covered many of the attacks extensively. But that didn't matter. And as usual, Trump left the insinuation of dark motives hanging, unexplained. 

But his message was clear and chilling: The mainstream media are conspiring to exculpate terrorists, and are therefore themselves complicit in terrorism, and therefore the enemy. He's also told Americans to hold their court system, which suspended his immigration ban, responsible for any terrorist attack.

The War on Terror never ended, it appears. It has only widened. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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