What is a Terrorist?
By John D. Turner
10 Dec 2010

Terrorist: 1. “a person who employs terror or terrorism, esp as a political weapon” – The Free Dictionary, 2. “a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism” – Dictionary.com, 3. “a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities” – worldnetweb.princeton.edu

“Terrorism is the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion. No universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism currently exists” - Wikipedia

Nine years after the events of 9/11 you would think that we could at least agree on a definition of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism.” Sadly, such is not the case. One has to wonder, how we can wage a war against something we cannot even define.

A quick search on Google brings up all sorts of references to the words “terrorist” and “terrorism.” Although definitions abound, they are usually so general as to be useless, or state somewhere within that “there is no universally agreed upon definition, as with the Wikipedia entry which is partially quoted above. Some are short, as with (1) above. Some are much longer, like this definition, which appears in U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d). As one would expect, the official US definition is much lengthier than any you might find in an on-line dictionary! But even it has ambiguities and loopholes.

So what is a terrorist anyway?

This question became particularly meaningful to me recently. As is my wont, I was listening Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” as I was driving into work. Bill was out, and former Senator Rick Santorum was sitting in for him. Senator Santorum is a frequent guest host on Fridays, and I always enjoy listening to his take on things. This time, the discussion concerned the recent mass release of classified documents on the WikiLeak website.

As I listened, I was astounded to hear him describe Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeak, as a “terrorist”. His rationale was that since Mr. Assange was threatening to release more documents of an even more damaging nature if any action was taken against him, that he was acting in a “terroristic manner” towards the United States, and as such, this makes him a “terrorist.”

I couldn’t disagree with him more.

I can think of many things to call Mr. Assange; many of them are not printable here. I totally disagree with what he is doing. He has definitely hurt the United States quite a bit to advance whatever his goal may be. Whomever his sources are (and one has recently been identified), they are traitors to this nation, and as such, should be executed; the United States currently being at war (yes, I know it is undeclared, and yes, I disagree with that, however the fact is that our troops are being shot at and bombed, and we are replying in kind; call it whatever you will, we are effectively at war). His sources, in as much as they come from this country, are traitors, plain and simple, regardless of what their motivations may be. Mr. Assange is Australian and so cannot be reasonably called a traitor, although I suppose you could consider him a spy; but a terrorist? No.

We have a word for what Mr. Assange is attempting vis-à-vis his attempt to keep the US from taking action against him. The term is “blackmail.” He is attempting to blackmail the US into leaving him alone, by threatening to release more information detrimental to our interests.

Senator Santorum paints with too broad a brush when he claims that anyone who causes “terror” in someone is a terrorist. As Rush is fond of saying, “words mean things.” We cheapen the language when we sensationalize things that already have a definition by applying a superlative to the same event. The left is notorious for doing this; we on the right should show a little more restraint.

If a person kidnaps a child and holds them for ransom, is that kidnapper now a terrorist? Surely he has instilled terror in the hearts of the parents.

If a person holds up a convenience store at gunpoint, or a bank, or any other establishment, is he or she now a terrorist? Surely their actions terrified someone fearful of being shot.

Can a mugger now be considered a terrorist? How about the United States military? Surely there are people in Afghanistan who are terrified that they might be blown up by a drone attack. Despite the term “surgical strike”, innocents are maimed and killed in such attacks. There are no guarantees.

During the Cold War, were the governments of the United States and Soviet Union “terrorist states?” Many went to bed at night in terror that they would be annihilated by nuclear weapons in their sleep.

Of course, these arguments are specious. A kidnapper is a kidnapper. A robber is a robber. A mugger is a mugger. Governments do what they must to protect their citizens. And Julian Assange is a blackmailer, spy, and apparently a sexual opportunist with an aversion to condoms; the latter perhaps, may be the one that spells his downfall. Although one has to wonder what exactly the penalty is in Sweden for having sex without a condom; apparently rape, or at least that is what his one-night-stand is charging him with.

It is important that we don’t get carried away with this idea that anytime someone scares someone that makes them a terrorist. If my next door neighbor “lives in terror” because I have guns in my house, does that make me a terrorist? Or does it simply make my next door neighbor deranged?

Perhaps part of the problem is with the word “terror” itself. What does “terror” mean these days?

What does Senator Santorum mean when he states that Assange’s actions are causing “terror” in the US? Does he mean that the government is reacting with terror? Does he envision generals and admirals, perhaps high officials in the State Department cowering behind desks, eyes glazed, whimpering in fear of the next classified cable released on the internet? Does he think the average American citizen feels “terror” at the thought? (I bet most are Googling for the latest tidbits, if they are interested at all.)

I bet they (generals, admirals, and high officials in the State Department) are mad. I bet they are worried. I bet there are some who hope certain things they may have written never see the light of day. But I doubt there is much “terror” in high places going on over this. And I would bet there is more “terror” going on in the American public over the current economic picture here than there is over WikiLeaks.

It’s funny how we have problems with that word “terrorist.” There are those like Senator Santorum who seem to like to fling it around to describe just about anything that makes someone uncomfortable, and then there are those who are just too darned PC to even utter the word at all.

Just this week on the same radio station there was a report on Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. You might remember him; he is the one that shot up Fort Hood and killed 13 of his fellow Soldiers, and wounded 30. The news story referred to him as the “soldier who went on a ‘shooting rampage’ at Fort Hood.”

Oh, is that all it was? A “shooting rampage?” Kind of like when someone “goes postal” and just starts shooting people for no particular reason, or maybe because their girlfriend left them, or maybe because they were just upset in general or perhaps mentally deranged? I guess shouting “Allahu Akbar” while you were doing it means nothing in particular – who knows what he really said after all, in all that excitement.

In an aricle I wrote last year I stated my opinion that Major Hasan was not a terrorist, so perhaps it seems a bit hypocritical of me to now complain that the media didn’t refer to him as such, but, “a shooting rampage?” Words fail me.

What I did call him was an enemy combatant; a jihadi wearing an American uniform; an American citizen fighting for the enemy. And as such, he is a traitor to his nation. For that reason, subject to the laws of our nation, he should be executed. As an enemy combatant killing Americans while wearing our uniform, under the laws of war, he is also subject to execution.

You see, we even have terms (other than terrorist) to describe a despicable piece of filth like Major Hassan.

Words mean things.

Sometimes the way my older daughter drives when I am a passenger in the car scares me. But that doesn’t make her a terrorist. If I make scary sounds in the dark, and jump out from around a corner and yell boo (eliciting the appropriate response from my teenage daughter) does that make me a terrorist? Oddly, some schools think that if a student points a finger at someone and says “bang” that makes them a terrorist. If you think any of these examples are examples of terrorism, then you have lost the meaning of the word. It is sort of like calling what happened in Abu Ghraib (stripping prisoners naked and making them form human pyramids) “torture.” I know some have tried to make that case; a fail in my opinion. If that is torture, then what do you call it when someone mashes lit cigarette butts on your body, cuts off body parts, or inserts bamboo under your fingernails?

When we lose the meanings of the words we use, it becomes impossible to communicate effectively. It becomes impossible for us to describe the world around us in any sort of detail; everything degenerates into a state of ill-defined generalities. It also makes us more susceptible to tyranny and mass hysteria. If I am told that someone is a “terrorist” does that mean he was plotting to blow up the neighborhood Walmart, or did he merely point his finger at someone and say “bang?”

We need to get a handle on this terror, terrorist, and terrorism thing. It’s hard to fight against something you can’t even properly define.