The XX Factor

What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism

Bill Bennett has a post up at National Review demanding that Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s murder of 13 people be deemed “terrorism .” Forty-nine percent of Americans apparently prefer the phrase “killing spree.” This, we are to understand, is the terminology of the morally unserious, the purveyors of “psycho-babble,” the “politically correct” masses who prefer the “language of mush.” Avoidance of the word “terrorism” is taken to be an avoidance of clarity.

Whether you want to use the word terrorism probably depends on whether you see Hasan’s actions as the isolated ravings of a madman or as part of some larger ongoing struggle. But “coordinated” versus “isolated” hardly maps onto the difference between “clarity” and “mush.” Bennett seems to want to use the word differently; as a kind of practice in line-drawing, a signal of shared seriousness. In this use, “terrorist” is the opposite of “freedom fighter.” It clarifies nothing about the act itself. It merely indicates the speaker’s adherence to a certain world-view, a taking of sides.

I was thinking about so-called “clarity” as I read Emily Y.’s post on some deeply embarrassing e-mails stolen from Britain’s Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia. The e-mails uncovered an attempt to keep unfavorable research out of peer-reviewed journals. (“Kevin and I will keep them out somehow-even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” reads one particularly charming exchange.) A fellow climate researcher then took to the New York Times not to worry over this suppression of honest and open debate, but to declare his allies victims of “cyber-terrorism .” Pay no attention to those incriminating emails; are you with us or against us? Terrorism! Bad guys!

“Is there anything more important than the issue of terrorism?” Bennett asks in his post. It’s meant as a rhetorical question; the obvious answer is supposed to be no. And that’s absurd. Lots of things, like hernias , are more “important,” or at least more deadly, than terrorism in the United States. But you see where Bennett is going: Hasan’s atrocity was terrorism. Nothing is more important than terrorism. Any rights abridged along the way to prevent another act of terrorism must be justified, because … nothing’s more important than terrorism. There is a kind of bright, shining clarity in that, an invitation not to muddy the waters with too much thinking.