What we talk about when we talk about terrorism

Tuesday, 16 April, 2013

The word has become so politically incorrect that it should be avoided because one man’s terrorism is another’s liberation, we are told. When it comes to the “Language when Reporting Terrorism”, the BBC offers “Guidance in Full“, which states: “Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements. We try to avoid the use of the term ‘terrorist’ without attribution.”

What makes terrorism such a “difficult and emotive subject” for the media is that terrorism is often assumed to have validity. It only erupts wherever people have legitimate grievances, say the apologists. Eradicate these grievances — poverty, injustice, hunger, discrimination, inequality, lack of political participation — and the terror will stop. While it is true that in an ideal world inhabited by flawless human beings there would be no terrorism, the reality is that people are imperfect, our institutions are faulty and grievances can be addressed but never eliminated. Regardless of how democratic a society is, it can never be perfect. There will always be unhappy people claiming that their particular situation is unbearable, and there will be dangerous people more interested in terror than in tolerance.

Interestingly, democratic societies where grievances can be expressed openly are the favourite targets of terrorists, while the worst forms of dictatorship are almost never targeted. There were no terrorist movements in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, and there are none in North Korea today.

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