Let’s Get Rid Of “Terrorism”

17 Dec

Terrorists are not simply terrorists.  The “terrorist” label is the fastest way of widening the discord between ‘them’ and ‘us’.  “Terrorist” is not a neutral word; neither is it an accurate description.  Jacques Derrida pointed out the fallacies inbuilt in the term: is it always killing? And does ‘killing’ also mean ‘allowing to die’? In which case, what about the thousands dying from AIDs who we daily forget? And if media exposure slips, will the “terrorists” begin to get away with it? Another of Derrida’s questions highlighted the bias inbuilt in the term: will terrorism one day “stop being denounced as such to be hailed as the only recourse left in a legitimate fight?” The question is politically courageous.  Seven weeks after the planes crashed into the two towers, George Bush made a coercive statement: “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror”.  Those words force polarity.  Lexically, his statement is true: the bias of “terror” prevents neutrality in either political affiliation or expression.   Anybody who wishes to be considered rational must posit himself against the “terrorist” (and indeed, no “terrorists” call themselves “terrorists”).  Bush’s fight is based on lexical disingenuity.

Last month, Mohamud Osman, a 19 year old Somali-American student, tried to set off a car bomb in Oregon; he was caught by the FBI.  His perspective is undeniably chilling.  He deliberately targeted a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony attended by thousands and said that he wanted every single person there “to leave either dead or injured.”   Even more horribly, he made this claim after having been arrested – in other words, at such a time when his words cannot be construed as bravado or idealism.  Even in reflection, mass murder remained his aim.

Why was “terrorism” his intention in the first place? As with the majority of “terrorist” attacks that we hear about in the West, Osman’s desire to hurt so many came out of his desire to punish the US for Iraq and Afghanistan.  He came to believe that destruction was the optimum way of shouting to the world his condemnation of America.  Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the Iraqi who blew himself up in Stockholm, had similar motives: Sweden’s presence in Afghanistan, and artist Lars Vilks’ cartoon of the prophet Muhammed.  Al-Abdaly told his lecturer in 2003 that he was “stressed out” by the US invasion of Iraq.  What must be recognised is that both these young men (Osman is 19; al-Abdaly was 28) acted out of a desire that provokes most youth to action: the desire to change things for the better.  They were motivated by idealism; both men believed that their actions could make a difference. 

Clearly, their manner of enacting this desire was appalling.  It was misguided and destructive.  Yet mightn’t it be the case that we are making it easier for such people to go down the “terrorist” path? The FBI called Osman a “dim-witted wannabe terrorist” after they caught him.  Such a description is only likely to further estrange him – and to push others considering similar acts into following him.  “Wannabe” glorifies the idea of being a “terrorist”, as though it is something to strive for, something beyond the reach of the “dim-witted.”  (Would not having been caught made him a successful and intelligent “terrorist” instead?) “Dim-witted” presumably refers to the ease with which Osman was baited – but it does such ease not belie a disquieting readiness to battle that ought to be taken seriously? Osman is not some idiot who simply felt like committing suicide and committing mass murder; it is unlikely that anyone should be so charmed by the idea of “terrorism” that they wish for their own death in the process.  This is no attention-seeking. 

Osman’s willingness to believe that “terrorism” is an effective way of making the world a better place is what governments wishing to prevent “terrorist” attacks must consider.  For terrorism to be seen as a viable option, the perpetrator must be desperate.  He, or she, is likely to seek out understanding and compassion.  Al-Abdaly was described by an Islamist website as “our brother … who carried out the martyrdom operation in Stockholm.” Which verdict – that or “dimwit” – is Osman more likely to wish to achieve? And therefore which path will he choose? 

Osman represents a group who believe that “terrorism” is a route to martyrdom.  He remains alive for us to question – not solely for intelligence information, but also about who he is and what led him to consider this action as viable.  What made him choose such a direction; for it was, above all, a choice.  There can be no passivity in suicide and murder.  This is far, far more than the “culture of resentment” that Ann Marlowe described in the New York Post.  Resentment is not in itself sufficient to be the fuel for “terrorism.”  It is a culture of a will to make a difference that is misguided and manipulated.  It is not only the extremists who are responsible, however; it is also, on the Western side, a culture of misunderstanding deepened by labels.  To dismiss Osman as a dimwit allows him to believe himself a misunderstood victim.  It allows him to believe he has much more in common with his “brother[s]”.   For those who believe that the invasion of Iraq was unjust and are convinced that radicalism is the only way forward will doubtless be further seduced by the idea of their posthumous glorification.  The story put forward by those “brothers” is one by which a young radical like Osman can easily become seduced: he feels himself welcomed into the bosom of a family, who have his same dreams for their countries and his same hatred of injustice.  The brothers promise an eternity of happiness and glory.  Al-Qaeda’s magazine, named ‘Inspire’, is full of such indoctrination.  Radical organisations are deeply aware of the ease with which a lonely/angry/sad  youngster can believe their calling is to destroy as many people on the other side as possible.

Edward Said described the function of the label “terrorist” as something we use to keep “people stirred up and angry.”  In demonising the “terrorists” and in dismissing them, we isolate them.  Not only is this wrong, it is stupid. We make the job of militant recruiters much easier by calling potential suicide bombers idiots.


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