On language, and Vinoth Ramachandra on the use of ‘terrorist’

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties from conservatives to anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. (George Orwell)

I read Vinoth Ramachandra’s wonderful and provocative book ‘Subverting Global Myths’ a few years ago. Some of what he has written on terrorism I have found profoundly challenging.  It’s certainly relevant at the moment although this may not be the best time to post this!

For most of the nineteenth century, however the word terrorist came to refer to all revolutionaries who threatened the monarchies of Europe…

..it was after World War 2, when the British and French empires found themselves vulnerable to nationalist agitation in their colonies that terrorism came to be used exclusively of acts of political violence committed by nonstate actors. The newly independent states of Asia and Africa took over this definition of terrorism and applied it in subsequent years to all those militant guerrilla organisations that challenged state authority. The use of force for political ends, whether in the context of declared war or otherwise, is inextricably bound up with terror… [he goes on to cite examples in Algeria and his homeland of Sri Lanka]

Unless we proscribe to the naive belief that governments do not engage in acts of terror against their own citizens, let alone the civilian populations of other nations, the one-sided use of terrorism by the world’s media is baffling. Violent actions by the Israeli army or Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians are never described as ‘terrorist’ but the term is routinely used in large sections of the Western media for violent acts undertaken against Israelis. Surely journalistic integrity requires that the term terrorism should either be dropped for its vagueness or used even-handedly to embrace all organised acts of terror, including those by governments. The terms militant, guerrilla or insurgent do not carry the same connotations of evil that terrorist does; and hence the hijacking of that term by governments who want to scapegoat those who challenge their legitimacy. ‘Terrorism’ is always what our enemies do….

Many of us who live in societies that have been traumatised by decades of terrorist and counter-terrorist violence slowly become desensitised to it. We are tempted  to justify brutal retaliation by the police and military whenever their our own security is shattered by a bomb attack. We have seen how ‘terrorist’ suspects in most countries are treated neither as prisoners of war nor as criminals. In either case they would come under protective judicial procedures. The category to which they are reduced is that of the subhuman, and so they can be tortured and executed without qualm. This is an affront to the inherent human dignity tat they share with us.

The language that we use is powerful in making those who are different from us into the ‘other’. I know this only too well from my upbringing in Northern Ireland. Even a comment today made in a Facebook debate on Gaza (referring to Hamas) reinforces this:

they don’t value human life we do

They.

Subtext – ‘we’ are better than ‘them’ or in personal cases ‘I’ am better than ‘you’.

In conflict it is only too easy to demonise the other ‘other side’ and forget they too are people of dignity created in the image of God. Vinoth’s words remind me of the importance of trying to pause and be careful about my language, whether it be conflict on an interpersonal level or an international one.

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