The Word "Terror" Is Used More Often, Reducing Impact

11:19 PM, May 23, 2013   |    comments
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USA Today - A brutal stabbing on a London street followed by a rant from the blood-covered suspect links the assault to attacks against Muslims.

The first question after the slaying of a British soldier on a busy street in London on Wednesday was also the first one after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Atlanta Olympics bombing and many other such incidents: Was it terrorism?

In London, the facts seem to suggest the answer is almost surely yes. There was dramatic violence in a non-military setting with an apparently political purpose. "You people will never be safe,'' an attacker, holding a bloody knife and meat cleaver, tells a video camera. "Remove your government. They don't care about you.''

Laura Beth Nielsen, associate professor of sociology and director of legal studies at Northwestern University, has studied the language of terrorism.

She says the London case seems to be terrorism under virtually any definition but that often the word is used so loosely as to be useless.

Over the years, the word has been used to describe everything from the 9/11 attacks to the Newtown school shootings, from the 1960s civil rights protests to the splattering of officials with fake blood by AIDS activists in the 1980s.

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She defines terrorism as violence designed to instill fear in a community to achieve a social or political goal: Unless and until we know an attacker's motive, we can't call anything terrorism, or even begin to debate whether it is or not.

That's why she does not regard the Tucson gunman who killed six people and severely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a terrorist. Even though he terrorized many with his actions, he also was a paranoid schizophrenic with no capacity for what she calls "rational calculus'' about why he did what he did.

The word "terror" has become politically charged. After the Boston bombing last month, President Obama did not use it in his first statement to the nation. But the next morning, he said that based "on what we now know,'' the bombing was "an act of terrorism.''

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer says there was no new information overnight, and that generally the administration "obsessively adopts language that extirpates any possible connection between Islam and terrorism. ... It even classified the (2009) Fort Hood (Texas) shooting, in which the killer screamed 'Allahu Akbar' as he murdered 13 people, as 'workplace violence.' "

Nielsen says she regards the alleged Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan, as "profoundly mentally ill'' and thus incapable of the intent that must be an element of terrorism.



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