April 17, 2013

What does the word "terrorism" mean? When should it be employed? This is a debate we have seen in our nation over the past decade after President George W. Bush announced the start of the "war on terror," which sounds even more loosely defined than a "war on terrorism" (for more consideration of this language shift, check out a great New York Times column by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg). Some conservatives argued during the election last year that President Barack Obama was trying to cover up the attack in Benghazi because he did not say "terrorist" or "act of terror" enough. Although the accusations against Obama appeared to be trumped up in hopes of winning an election and were sometimes inaccurate (such as Mitt Romney's claims in a presidential debate that result in a live fact-check from moderator Candy Crowley), there was an important assumption underlying the criticism: words matter. Obama shying away from using the 't-word' could indicate that he was unwilling to fully admit what the problem was and may not be responding appropriately. Interestingly, Obama did not use the 't-word' in his first comments after the Boston bombing on Monday, but the White House quickly issued a statement clarifying that they do, in fact, view the act as terrorism and Obama called it an "act of terror" in his remarks the next day. This is an important choice of words. What we call it will impact how we respond.

While our nation's leaders call the Boston bombing an "act of terror" even though we do not know who committed it or why, other violent acts are not given the same linguistic frame. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, brilliantly raised this issue in a hearing today as she questioned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. McCaskill questioned why Obama and the U.S. government have not labeled the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting an "act of terror." McCaskill stated:

As I look at the evidence that's available, you have mass destruction and violence and slaughter of innocents, and in neither case do we know motive. And the irony is, we are so quick to call Boston 'terror.' Why aren't we calling the man with the high-capacity assault weapon and the high-capacity magazine, why aren't we calling him a 'terrorist'?
This is a astute observation. Why does one get the powerful label and not the other? It cannot be based on death toll since Sandy Hook was far worse, nor can it be about the shocking emotional impact of the event. Surely one does not have to use a bomb to be a terrorist. Surely a terrorist can use guns, such as with the infamous Munich Olympics terrorist attack when the victims were shot to death. This is not merely a matter of semantics, since language helps frame the way we view events and therefore how we respond. If Sandy Hook is not a terrorist act but just a case of a mentally ill individual doing something bad, then we can more easily push it aside without needing to respond with new efforts to prevent future attacks. If we label it an "act of terror" we are much more likely to take action to prevent similar terrorist attacks. That would mean we might look to passing more gun control measures, like universal background checks or banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But if we can keep our language from firing us up too much, perhaps we can justify doing nothing to prevent another terrorizing mass shooting.