'Terrorism': bad language?

Mairtin O'Cathain reflects on uncritical use of the word terrorist by many on the left, including anarchists and libertarian communists (and Organise! for that matter) and examines the meaning of the words Terror and Terrorism.

Submitted by libcom on December 19, 2005

From a term applied to the exercise of violence by the state to one that is used to identify the enemies of the state these are now among the most politically loaded words in the English language.

The coverage of the recent attacks on London has led to resounding denunciations of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terror’ from almost every quarter, including all sections of the left, anarchists included. The harrowing and random nature of the attacks naturally led most people to condemn those involved and outline their opposition to their methods and politics.

While this is, of course, a legitimate and understandable expression it falls into the trap of mouthing the same line as those whose actions have led to the attacks in the first place. The uncritical parroting of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ in particular have been sickening in their repetition. These words are among the most politically loaded in the English language, and although used by greater and greater numbers of people, they originated with governments and their allies in the security services and mass media, who have continued to push for their definition of ‘terrorism’ to be accepted by all sections of society since the nebulous ‘war on terror’ began. It’s interesting to note that the United Nations refuse to accept as authoritative the term ‘terrorism’, and their own expert on the subject, Alexander Schmidt, has been researching globally to try and find a suitably palatable definition.

Naturally, no group accused of ‘terrorism’ actually admits to the title and it should be particularly important to anarchists that not only is it forwarded by states but also originates with them. It was first used by the French Republican state during the ‘Reign of Terror’ against its enemies of the left and right, and re-employed by various Marxist regimes, including the Soviet Union. It was only in the later twentieth century that the term was used more widely and pejoratively to define the state’s enemies. At all times its use has been opposed by many anarchists, reminding people that it began with the state and lies with the state today. When we speak of terrorism we are speaking of the state, there should be no need to qualify it by talk of ‘state terrorism’ as if it were somehow just an aspect of regular terrorism. Only states can bring the full power of unbridled physical violence to bear in all its barbarous variety from nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction to machine-gun and night-stick. They have the monopoly on violence, and armies of brainwashed individuals to enforce their will.

This is not to excuse or dismiss religious fundamentalists and their violence. The nexus of Islam, Orientalism, post-Colonial hysteria and oil wealth has created a small but vicious array of Muslim fundamentalist groupings scattered across the globe, gathering up grudges and causes like stones, and representing myriad religious and political demands. Of course, it’s easier for states to define them all as one big group of ‘baddies’ – like the pirates of the 17th century, the republicans of the 18th, anarchists of the 19th century and communists of the 20th. This is done by the simple application of the word ‘terrorist’ to those who challenge the state’s monopoly of violence, and condemns society to further violence and repression, generates untold wealth for those who profit by war, and puts aside all notion of political solution and compromise until thousands are dead.

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