What We Mean When We Talk About Terror

Everyone has their way to process grief. In the United States of America, the process of grief is nearly a national pastime. So routine is this process that it’s become a morbid ritual; with each new shooting or stabbing or bombing, you already know how the ritual plays out before the bodies have a chance to cool.

First there is the requisite airing of thoughts and prayers, of outrage and feigned shock. (Feigned, because there’s nothing shocking about it.) Within minutes the rumors start; the content farms and newsrooms play their game of telephone based on unconfirmed reports; online sleuths dig up the dirt on faulty leads; it isn’t long before the whispers of “false flags” begin their dismal circulation. Everyone knows what stance they’ll take:  the only question is if this latest thing conforms to one’s received opinion, or if it puts them on the defense. Then the schoolmarms come to rein us in—the facts are still unknown, the bodies are still warm, and besides, isn’t it too soon to politicizetragedy? And this is all before the hot-take merchants and spin doctors even get to the scene of the crime.

The discourse that ensues the following day is well-rehearsed. If the attack involved a firearm, then we are treated to another round of asking whether gun laws might be further needed, or if the pathologies of a heavily armed populace might be solved by heavily arming the populace. Where you stand on that will tend to correspond with how you feel about one other point of controversy: the double-standard in the use of the word “terrorism.” If the perpetrator was a Muslim, or even any shade of brown, then no great fuss is made about its being called an “act of terror.” But if the perp was good old-fashioned, all-American white, nuance suddenly abounds. Didn’t he act alone? Was he known for being political? And wasn’t he, after all, always a bit deranged?

The grieving process of last Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas proceeded accordingly. And, as is customary, we rehearsed our strange debate about who qualifies as a “terrorist.”  Stephen Paddock was a terrorist; he committed the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history against innocent civilians. Stephen Paddock wasn’t a terrorist; he was a local who acted alone and his motive is obscure. As ever, the political or racial bias of the term’s application is called out, as if bigotry had corrupted an otherwise useful designation. But the question of what counts as terrorism isn’t just an issue of semantics. It is, and has been always, a political invention.

Those who insist that the “lone white male shooter” is not a terrorist should be asked: Is there a meaningful distinction between a murderer who kills for an imaginary caliphate and one who kills for his own bloodlust? And those who pop up always to remind us that yes, white men can be terrorists, should be asked: Is there a practical reason to extend the “terror” designation that’s not purely out of spite? The answers to both should tell you everything.

The classic problem of terrorism is that it has neither a consistent nor a compelling definition. A common dictionary tells us that it’s “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” But that definition is so broad and unhelpful as to be all-inclusive—as Max Weber knew, it’s basically the definition of the modern state. Ronald Reagan once tried his hand at clearing it up for us, relying on the difference between the “terrorist” and his Janus twin, the “freedom fighter”:

Freedom fighters target the military forces and the organized instruments of repression keeping dictatorial regimes in power. . . . Terrorists intentionally kill or maim unarmed civilians, often women and children, often third parties who are not in any way part of a dictatorial regime.

That may sound nice, but it was also said while Ronald Reagan was selling weapons to Iran to fund the Contra “freedom fighters” on their murder spree through Nicaragua. So the term has also suffered from a problem of under-inclusion: it’s terror when they do it, but never when we do.

As it happens, the Nevada criminal code errs on the side of broadness. It defines an act of terror as “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.” That works well enough as a piece of criminal law, and would likely cover Stephen Paddock, but a question then is raised: Why insist on the label “terrorist”? No one would deny the sheer, unmitigated criminality and depravity of Stephen Paddock. Yet it’s that extra oomph in the label “terrorist,” that certain je ne sais quoi, that makes all the sordid difference.

It was Benjamin Netanyahu—now prime minister of Israel but then U.N. ambassador—who gave us this exquisite exposition on the meaning of terror:

The root cause of terrorism lies not in grievances but in a disposition toward unbridled violence. This can be traced to a world view which asserts that certain ideological and religious goals justify, indeed demand, the shedding of all moral inhibitions. . . . [T]he root cause of terrorism is terrorists.

This may seem asinine and glib, but raison d’État always is. (Nor is it that far off; for the U.S. State Department, a terrorist is whoever’s on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.) “Terrorism” has always been the buzzword of state power and propaganda. The terrorist can’t be reasoned with; he must be destroyed. The terrorist has no history or goals, no language but that of violence. Terrorism is driven purely by a pathological evil, and it spreads pathogenically. As a term of art, it adds nothing to our discourse except to muddle our thinking, to stoke our paranoia, and to magnify our threats beyond reality. No mention of “terror” can be divorced from the crucial fact that we’re still locked in a global and unending “War on Terror,” whose primary effect is to cast society as in a state of permanent siege, and to heighten everything to the pitch of an existential battle.

As George Bush and his cheerleaders discovered sixteen years ago, once you call your enemies terrorists or fascists, you can get away with a hell of a lot when fighting them. In fact, Netanyahu’s definition of terrorism as something that demands “the shedding of all moral inhibitions” can be turned on its head—terror is something that demands that we shed our moral inhibitions. Due process, the right to privacy and the prohibition against torture all go out the window. Now, I don’t mean to suggest an equivalence between the left and the right, but already the very idea of civil liberties has become unfashionable in many leftist circles; they’re seen as liberal (in the pejorative sense) enablers of fascism. One gets a whiff, mutandis mutandis, of that fetid accusation by John Ashcroft back in 2001, that individual rights are “weapons with which to kill Americans.”

Whenever some violent media spectacle takes place, another ritual proceeds. My Muslim and Arab comrades will say that the second thing they feel, after sympathy for the victims, is a fear that the perp will be an Arab or a Muslim. For several decades now, the spectacle of terror has been used to justify extreme repression of those assumed to be of “terrorist descent,” and to peddle all sorts of paranoid untruths about the Savage Oriental. So I understand the impulse to insist, when the bad guy happens to be white, on some measure of consistency.

But “terrorist” has never been a useful or a neutral designation; it’s always been political. And leftists should be cautious to invoke the propaganda of our enemies, especially when its chief effect is shoring up the state’s powers of repression. Its main achievement is giving jobs to a whole industry of quack experts on “radicalization,” and turning mosques and schools and social media into a network of informants. And if it’s not the mosque, then it will be the church or the therapist or the gun retailer; before too long, if not already, court files and health records and bank statements too. It makes one sometimes think that all Americans, left and right, share the secret wish to live in a police state.


Los Angeles, 2017.

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