Losing Definition: The Language of Politics

Every week now we hear the media, politicians and ordinary people brandishing the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ in an attempt to explain the turbulent, complicated world around us. The following are some examples from last week alone:
– In response to WikiLeaks’ information dump of CIA Director John Brennan‘s personal emails, a Mediaite contributor stated “it was, at its essence, nothing less than terrorism: an illegal, politically-motivated act designed to terrorize an intelligence officer.”
– The interesting case of a man in Jerusalem shot dead by soldiers after acting erratically and trying to grab a gun from an IDF member. His behaviour was enough to see him labelled a terrorist, but only until it was discovered that he was an Israeli jew. The ZAKA (voluntary emergency response team) chairman on the scene said, ““When I arrived with the ZAKA team at the site of the supposed terrorist attack, it seemed to be a ‘standard’ current terrorist attack, a stabbing attempt, and the terrorist was apprehended. I wanted to cover the body in a black bag [reserved for terrorists]. After I was asked to take care of the body I saw that he was a Jew, and that it was a mistake to speak of a terrorist. I immediately notified the police and we switched to a white ZAKA body bag.”
– In New Zealand some controversy erupted over a TV3 journalist’s story on purchasing a gun without valid documentation. While this was intended to highlight loopholes in the system, the police are considering charging the journalist with illegal purchase of a firearm. Meanwhile, the owner of the gun shop in question criticised the journalist’s actions, saying, “This was more like a terrorist activity, frightening people above a level they should be concerned.”

The word ‘terrorism’ has its origins in Revolutionary France, where it was used to describe the action of those in power to frighten the general population into submission, defined as “government by intimidation”. More contemporary definitions of the word include: the instilling of fear or terror; the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims; such practices used by a government or ruling group in order to maintain control over a population; such practices used by a clandestine or expatriate organisation as a means of furthering its aims. (Definitions courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary)

Admittedly, these definitions cover a wide range of activities and are open to very divergent interpretations. We’ve all heard the adage, “one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist” and no doubt if the civilian population of the US, the UK or New Zealand were living in fear of becoming collateral damage due to a bomb dropped from an unseen, unheard, pilotless plane, then drone attacks would be classed as acts of terrorism. However, it seems that the very fast and loose use of the word today comes from the media’s desire to produce attention grabbing headlines, in an increasingly competitive news marketplace, combined with those in power attempting to encourage a culture of fear in which increased surveillance, government control and punitive measures are accepted as necessary. Therefore, the very use of the word ‘terrorism’, in which the media and politicians are complicit, is, by definition, an act of terrorism in itself.


This raises the sticky and delicate issue of vocabulary choice in politics. Words such as ‘terrorism’ are used hyperbolically but when overused or regularly employed inaccurately they can become hackneyed and begin to lose their impact. Other words become common currency – extremism, radical ideology, hate speech – but these too require definitions of their own. In the UK, the government’s current anti-terror policies involve an attempt to stamp out the grooming of young people for terrorist acts through extremist ideologies. The government has settled on a definition for ‘extremism, as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, placing itself in the impossible position of having to then define ‘British values’. They gave it a shot with, “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, but how do you fully define something so utterly intangible? So it is important, when politicians and the media bandy about words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, that we constantly question what those using them intend them to mean.

25th October 2015

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