The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Words Have Meaning 

Jenna, from Right off the Shore, posted about a so-called "Act of Terrorism" in Madison:

Army employees were startled Monday afternoon when a brick crashed through the window of the campus Army Recruiting Station, 73 University Square, around 2:30 p.m. Army officers were in the building when the window shattered, but were unable to catch the vandal.
...
Stephanie Jung of Stop the War said the broken window could give the Madison anti-war movement the spark it needs.

"It is going to take more than people rallying on Library Mall," Jung said. "I think actions that will eventually get people onto the streets are what we need. I think this action could be something like that."

Of course interesting comments soon followed, mostly centered around her definition of this as an act of terrorism. It wasn't an act of terrorism. It was an act of vandalism. And referring to these sorts of things as terrorism is simply foolish.

I blogged on this almost a year and a half ago when there was an opinion piece published on Fox News about this subject:

Risk the health and safety of the public... you can take almost any act of violence and make it meet that definition. Hell, you can say almost anything advances some sort of ideological cause with a little creativity. And what act of violence doesn't intimidate the public?

You could say that gang members are really terrorists. They often use acts of random or directed violence against people in their neighborhood. People who live in those neighborhoods will tell you that they are definitely intimidated... some won't leave their homes at night. What cause are they trying to advance? I'm sure some prosecutor would say that they want to change drug laws, or advance changes to civil rights.

Calling someone a terrorist, who is not a terrorist, does many things that we do not want. First of all, it dumbs down the definition of terrorism in such a way that it minimizes the effect of real terrorism in people's minds. Real terrorism is a truly frightening event, that instills real fear in people. If we equate vandalism to terrorism, then what is real terrorism? What do we tell people who have had to grapple with the real effects of true terrorism? Do you honestly think you can talk to someone who survived a suicide bomb in Israel, and say to them, "I know exactly who you feel. The other day, someone through a rock through my window. It was horrible."

Secondly, it is dangerous from perspective of terrorist prevention. When we as a society start making policy decisions that treat terrorists different than criminals, and do not grant terrorist the same rights that we give to people accused of crimes, then the definition of terrorism is extremely important. Refusing rights to an individual is not something that we should do without considerable thought. When we make our definition of terrorism so broad, that vandals even meet that definition, then the abuses that government can inflict on its citizens will know no bounds. Given a broad enough definition, you could make anyone a terrorist.

Words have meaning. They don't just have simple dictionary definitions, they have connotations. They invoke feelings, and conjure certain reactions by people just from their utterance. Calling someone a terrorist because you hate what they did, while emotionally satisfying, is a cheap and unintelligent way to bring someone to your side. The repercussions of people repeatedly doing that, such that the connotations of a word changes over time, can be seem everywhere.

Anyone who cringes when George Bush is called a Nazi knows what I mean. Imagine what someone who survived Dachau thinks of what that word has become.

Comments:

Nick, this act was not simply vandalism. Stop the War! has been targeting recruiters and ROTC on campus for years, violently so.

So, to play to your post, if you don't want to call it terrorism, and it is NOT simply vandalism, what is it?

  Posted at March 30, 2006 4:55 PM by Blogger Jenna  
Well... then I would call it... vandalism. Jenna, just because a group targets a specific location for a specific reason doesn't make it terrorism. It's called a motive. Most crimes have one, yet most crimes do not rise to the level of terrorism.

  Posted at March 30, 2006 9:02 PM by Blogger Nick  
I have had a few busy days but heard some mutterings about a terrorist act in Madison. I was picturing something that might have closed the capitol, for example.

... if the term terrorism can be applied as desired, how do we define September 11? Do we need qualifers? International terrorism, anti-war terrorism?

  Posted at March 31, 2006 10:35 AM by Blogger Phelony Jones  
It then would need an escalating modifier. Vando-terrorism, perhaps, as opposed to terroristic terrorism.

Nice post Nick and good perspective.

  Posted at March 31, 2006 10:42 AM by Blogger grumps  
Most dictionaries leave out something crucial things when they define terrorism... something that most people implicitly fill in (sort of like dictionary gestalt), because we all have a sense of what terrorism is.

Most people have a sense that an "incident" has to rise to a certain level of severity, or be part of a chain of lower severity events before it can be called terrorism. This level is not quantifiable, but everyone has a sense of it. Vandalism does not rise to that level, even if there are multiple incidents of it, unless there is also the real threat of murder, or higher order destruction that accompanies it.

Secondly, I think for something to be defined as terrorism, it needs to be done by an external force. This does not necessarily mean that this group has to be international, you can have domestic terrorism. But in the case of domestic terrorism, generally that group would have to be fighting for a new government through illegitimate means. While Stop the War does advocate certain means to fight the war that we don't like, I don't think it meets this criteria either.

  Posted at March 31, 2006 10:47 AM by Blogger Nick  
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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.


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