Of the complicated pile of…legacy…that we have to untangle from the cultural madness we Americans indulged in during the Naughties (that’s the ’00 decade, where pretty much every public figure engaged with politics, public policy, economics, social action, environmentalism, culture wars, and foreign policy acted impulsively, childishly, and shamefully), perhaps none is more irritating than the new jargon that’s grown up to obfuscate the different kinds of political violence in the world. When it comes to political violence, the destruction of the language we’ve all ostensibly agreed on is quite shocking.

I’m sick of terrorism. I don’t mean the violence (which I got sick of way back in the ’90s), I mean the bad language (specifically, the bad use of language). The English language has a wonderful repertoire for describing violence, and there is a word for a situation where, say, a boat pulls up alongside a warship in a foreign port and blows a hole in it, killing dozens of sailors — and it isn’t “terrorism.”

The dictionary defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror as a means of coercion”. In political terms, terrorism is is characterized by non-strategic but politically-motivated violence conducted against civilians. When used by an outside or revolutionary force, it is an attempt to destabilize or undermine a regime, culture, or system by eroding the trust that makes the system work. It can also be used by a sitting government against its political enemies, in which case it’s generally called “tyranny” or “totalitarianism” depending on the degree to which it is practiced.

That’s it. That’s what terrorism is. Intimidation, harassment, or political wrangling isn’t terrorism. Expulsion for running afoul of academic standards isn’t “terrorization.” Civilians who die while caught in the crossfire of a war are not “victims of terror/terrorism.”

And, most importantly, soldiers and representatives of a military or political authority are not victims of terrorism. They’ve run afoul of another phenomenon that we have a perfectly good term for: they are casualties of guerrilla warfare.

Guerrilla war is war conducted by military irregulars against strategic and military targets. Oklahoma City Bombing? Conducted by a revolutionary against a government building housing paramilitary administration in revenge for earlier actions by that paramilitary organization — that’s guerrilla warfare. Ditto for the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and the RPG attack on my friend’s tent during the Iraq war (don’t worry, he was outside watching a movie at the time).

Then there are a whole slew of things domestically that are neither terrorism or guerrilla war, but get called “terrorism” by pundits and public officials and radicals. A peaceful protest at a WTO event isn’t terrorism, it’s dissent. When that protest turns violent (as they frequently do) it’s not terrorism, it is either a riot (if it’s spontaneous escalation) or it’s a revolutionary attack that rides the line of guerrilla warfare but usually doesn’t qualify, as it’s not well organized enough. Columbine wasn’t terrorism, it was a killing spree (there was no political motive). Fort Hood still seems up in the air – it might have been a guerrilla attack with substantial collateral damage, or it might have been a killing spree (but it wasn’t terrorism by any classical definition).

These categorizations can sound pretty meaningless – or worse, callous – because they are all ways of saying “people got killed/hurt for no very good reason.” But they are important because they all point to fundamental moral issues about violence. When we don’t make such distinctions, we lose the ability to make ethical distinctions between necessary violence and gratuitous violence. This distinction makes the difference between murder, manslaughter, and self defense. It also makes the difference between police work and police brutality, between crime and treason, between warfare and war crimes, and between disagreement and terrorism.

And, of course, in the grey areas where the categories overlap, there is lots of room for exploring moral ambiguities through fiction.

To conclude, I quote the immortal words of George Carlin:
“Please pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on.”


  1. “When we don’t make such distinctions, we lose the ability to make ethical distinctions between necessary violence and gratuitous violence.” While I found intrinsic value in the entire article, this sentence brought it home for me. I am tired of people telling me I’m getting lost in the semantics of an argument. While the above quote shows a terrible reality, it also speaks the plain truth.

  2. Our most recent, former political ‘in’ party is greatly responsible for this oversimplification of violence. I can’t decide if W. is just too stupid to grasp the nuances of language, or he grossly underestimated the intelligence of Americans. I suspect the former, but all the same, his use of overgeneralizing ‘hot’ terms and charged buzzwords also worked as a tool to manipulate us emotionally for his own political gain. I think he believed that if he could get us angry or afraid enough, we would by into any macho, cowboy tactic he put forward. The overuse of the word ‘terrorism’ was simply a tool for him to get what he wanted.
    I hope Obama uses this tactic less. He certainly seems more intelligent and thoughtful.
    Great food for our thought, Dan.

    Mary Laura

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