Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Helping the Terrorists
Hello? Is this "six degrees of Kevin Bacon"? In what world is speaking against war helping war? The logical chain is just about as convoluted as they come. On a related semantic note is this post from CJR Daily:
Of course, sweeping, logically suspect statements serve a purpose for politicians, for whom it may well be more important to inspire than to elucidate. Journalists have a contradictory mandate -- their goal should be to use clear, forthright language to evenhandedly convey important information. Thus while "freedom is on the march" may be a great phase for a president, it's an inexcusable one for a reporter. (Not to mention the fact that one citizen's freedom is another's horror -- as partisans on both sides of the abortion, gay marriage and gun ownership debates can attest.)Which brings us to the word "terrorist" and its variants, most notably "terrorism." The president likes to invoke "terrorists" dramatically, in reference to people who "hate freedom," people who are members of "shadowy groups." He uses the word as a vessel for emotional response. Journalists, by contrast, need the word to have a logical foundation, so that when a news consumer reads or hears it, he or she can make some sense of it.
And therein lies the problem, largely because "terrorist" and "terrorism" are words that lack a meaningful specific definition. We'd define a terrorist as one who, with malice aforethought, launches attacks on civilians or noncombatants out of political motivation. But that's just one characterization, and it's a loose one at that. According to the U.S. State Department's 2001 annual review of global terrorism, terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." (The asterisk, in case you're wondering, is used to point out that both civilians and unarmed or off-duty military personnel are considered noncombatants.) That's a nice effort, but it's far from definitive: the dictionary definitions of the word we reviewed are similar to both ours and the State Department's, but they all differ in small but crucial ways.