I’m not one who thinks that “words are weapons.” I generally think that weapons are weapons. I’ll make a bit of an exception, however, when it comes to the term “terrorism.”
Matthew Harwood wrote a piece last week on the uneven application
of the term terrorism in the American justice system. Focusing on the case of Francis Grady—who recently pleaded not guilty to setting fire to a Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin—Harwood argues that “terrorism” as a legal category tends to be applied only in cases of Islamist or environmentalist violence, not rightwing violence. Some left/progressive bloggers and pundits—here
, and here
—jumped on the story to make a rather satisfying though problematic argument: “They got “terrorists” on the right!”
I am deeply uncomfortable with applying the term “terrorist” to anyone—including people whose politics I find disgusting or dangerous (including radical Islamists). It’s not that I think violence from the extreme right doesn’t exist, though I believe the threat is exaggerated
. Rather, my wariness is ideological: By applying the “terrorism” moniker to the right, the left may opportunistically giving in to scoring some cheap points, rather than sticking to its political and ethical principles. This is something that, in the era of Obama’s “good” War on Terror, should be resisted without exception.
First, there’s matter of justice and state power. Why do we need Francis Grady to be identified legally as a “terrorist”? Does his crime—setting fire to a building he apparently knew was unoccupied—merit a more severe penalty simply because his motivation was political? Do we need or want undercover FBI agents infiltrating evangelical churches and engaging in the same kind of entrapment that they’ve perpetrated against American Islamists and radical ecologists? Not only is this a waste of resources, but such a misuse of state power is always ethically problematic—even when the “terrorists” are our ideological opponents.
Grady’s case demonstrates the pointlessness of so many terrorism trials. If terrorism is anything, it is simply crime, whether murder, arson, or the destruction of private property. Except in extreme instances, such crimes should be prosecuted as such, not as terrorism. What we need is a more limited application of “terrorism” as a legal devise, rather than the wider, “fairer” use of it.
More generally, progressives and leftists (as well as civil libertarians, who are often more consistent on this count) should resist the temptation to hurl the “terrorist” epithet at opponents because of the word’s discursive power in transforming societies and political structures. Historically, “terrorism” has been used to limit public discourse and silence opponents; and to roll back liberties and increase state powers dramatically. Rather than reinforcing this process by labeling them “terrorists,” we should try to disarm this term and its political entrenchment.
Furthermore, by identifying the perpetrators of violence as “terrorists,” we often simply end up playing their game. By employing such a loaded term—one that connotes revolution and cosmic warfare—we may inadvertently justify the grandiose self-image of violent political activists and validate their paranoid worldview, creating martyrs to be honored, emulated, and avenged. The self-fulfilling prophecy of terrorism, again.
Instead of parroting the terrorism discourse prevalent in the mainstream media or trying to challenge the right’s monopoly on the term by turning it against them, we should continue developing the critical project that began during the Bush years and is being dislodged by the Obama myth
Anyways, we have other perfectly good words to describe what Grady did. Instead of “terrorism,” why not simply use “violence”? Or even “wacknutery”? Instead of calling him a “terrorist,” how about “nutjob” or “slapdick”? I’ve always found that mockery can be just as satisfying as self-righteousness.