There is an asinine discussion going on on the Dianne Rehm show regarding the bombings in Boston and the use of the word “terrorism”. Some debate over “domestic terrorism” vs “foreign terrorism”; some acknowledgement that use of the term has legal and procedural consequences; some jingoistic “we will all pull together in the face of” and “show what it means to be American”.

I’m very tired of this term. As some have noted, merely invoking it pretty much terminates any more rational discussion on the matter at hand. Two of the participants, including the host, have noted in defining the term that it requires ascribing to the perpetrator the motivation of inspiring fear in the civilian populace, and yet at the same time acknowledge that our limited understanding of what exactly happened and who is responsible makes it impossible to know anything about motivation. Doesn’t this therefore imply that the term is inapplicable to what we know about what happened?

Calling it “terrorism” is a political act. When villagers in Afghanistan describe drone strikes as state-sponsored terrorism, we understand them to be making an accusation that we do not acknowledge: we never use language like that in our own descriptions of our acts. Neither do we describe IEDs on Iraqi roads as terrorist weapons. They’re simply weapons.

As Gen. McChrystal noted in a recent Times interview, those without access to drones and SEAL teams will commit acts of violence with the weaponry available to them. This applies equally well to deranged individuals, malevolent organizations, guerilla warriors, or foreign states.

Throwing the word “terrorist” around as a catch-all for intent to harm has consequences. Let’s not invoke those consequences unknowingly, and especially before we know who did this and why.

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