Terrorism: A Problematic Category

In in a program I participated in recently, we spoke about terrorism and what that word really means. It was the beginning of a great conversation that we did not really get a chance to take to its natural conclusion. I’ve been wanting to continue it. To form my thoughts about it since then. I am about to try to right here.

Cutting to the chase, terror has to do with innocents and civilians. If you are using violence not against designated soldiers or military targets, people and places that, in theory, can defend themselves, and you are using the unexpectedness of said violence to spread fear, then you are a terrorist. Those people you hurt and their loved ones are victims of terrorism.

In the program, some staff have slowly tried to shy away from the term. That is partly because we have participants’ who have lost loved ones that were soldiers and, occasionally, were in uniform when they lost their lives. It is partly, also, because, the US government and other governments that are often also those in power, tend to spin, charge, politicize, and/or capitalize on the label. Over time, because of this, it slowly loses its meaning. It can be trusted less.

On the other hand, if the term is useful, if it is really different in kind from other kinds of violence, then I am fine using it. I will feel less need to dance around the subject and grasp at other terms. The problem here is I don’t really feel it is necessary. The first use of the word, according to one source, had to do with the French government. That means a semi-legitimate state and its actors were terrorizing human beings. That means to me that state or non state actors can terrorize and be terrorized. (This also brings up the strange question of how do you know a “state” when you see one?) Whether they are soldiers or not, young or old, with guns, knives or bombs, we are all talking about human beings perpetrating violence against each other and succeeding in nothing but perpetuating a cycle of violence. Thinking this way would lump together, at least for a program like PCB, young people who have lost loved ones to terror attacks, occupation, urban violence, faith-based violence, race-based violence, civil war, and hate-based violence in the context of LGBTQ struggles around the world. There are probably many more groups of people that are victims of violence that I have accidentally left out.

The question then becomes, why does it matter if there is such a thing as terrorism or not? or whether there are different victims of violence groups? The question leads to an interesting one at least in the context of peace and conflict work, bereavement work, and identity conflict work, which is: does sharing your experience with someone who has a common bond make for a more healing/transformative experience than sharing it with someone who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t have as similar an experience? That is the question and it is about a grey area. As similar as? How much does that matter? It is something to experiment with as far as programs like this go. In the end, I really think that affinity groups and mixing the affinity groups can be equally powerful at different times and in different contexts. I see opportunities and transformative experiences in both types of gatherings. It need not be an either/or question and response.

What do you think?

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