The divide between terrorism’s denotation and connotation is growing, leading many to accept the connotation as the denotation and radically altering the very definition of what terrorism is. Terrorism is defined as an act — usually violent — intended to perpetuate a political idea through fear. This is the denotation, the definition that the word refers to. The connotation of terrorism is the sense it evokes in people: thoughts of suicide bombings, plane crashes and Arabs. Increasingly, when we speak of “terrorism”, we refer to the connotation rather than to the true meaning.
Some political analysts, most notably MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, have pointed out that “terrorism” as properly defined does not need to refer only to small-scale attacks, but may also include large-scale military strikes. One country’s invasion of another, while not normally thought of as “terror”, certainly has a political motivation and does terrorize the civilian population. Chomsky differentiates between “wholesale terrorism” and “retail terrorism”, with the former being military invasions and the latter referring more to individual attacks. The American government, for example, only considers non-state violence to be “terror”, defining terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents,” according to the 2003 publication National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.
Even if we ignore Chomsky as radical, and do not include military strikes in the category of terrorism, other misappropriations are becoming — or have already become — widely accepted. Two issues I would like to focus on are the idea of trerrorism as used by the “weak” and the idea of terrorist acts such as suicide attacks as “cowardly”. We will address the second point first.
Terrorism as Cowardly
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, many of those in the media and in the government referred to the plane hijackings and crashes as “cowardly”. One man, comedian Bill Maher, stood up and said that such acts were the very opposite of cowardly. On his September 17, 2001 broadcast of ABC’s appropriately-named “Politically Incorrect”, he agreed with his guest, conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards. He then went on to say, “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Such a remark was seen as too controversial for the show’s advertisers, including FedEx and Sears Roebuck. The show was no longer profitable, and Maher was removed from his show by not having his contract renewed. ABC released a statement at the time asserting that the show “celebrates freedom of speech and encourages the animated exchange of ideas and opinions. … There needs to remain a forum for the expression of our nation’s diverse opinions.”
Maher contends, however, that there was much tension behind the scenes, and to this author’s knowledge, Maher has never apologized for his remarks. He has, however, said he “should’ve been more clear” in his statement, while not denying the validity of the statement itself.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer responded to a reporter’s question about Maher’s comments by saying, “…they’re reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that…” Responses to his statement were not all negative, though.
Most notably coming to his defense was conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, a man not generally in agreement with Maher’s views. On his November 8, 2001 show, Limbaugh made some qualified supporting remarks. “To get canned over this – it’s strange,” explained Limbaugh. “What is the title of the show? It’s called ‘Politically Incorrect.'” He continued, saying, “This was, in my mind, one of the few things Bill Maher has ever said that’s correct. In a way, he was right…He used the word ‘we’, implying the American people, when he said ‘we’ are cowards. The American people cannot order a cruise missile launch. There’s only one man who can order a cruise missile launch — the guy who gave the speech in Georgetown last night [Bill Clinton]. Had he said ‘the commander in chief’ had engaged in something cowardly, he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble at all. But when he used the word ‘we’, that brought in the specter of the entire American population. The American people are not cowards, especially in a situation like this when they’ve got no say-so in the matter. But even at that, Maher has said far more controversial, crazy things [than] this.”
And while considering suicide bombers “brave”, or at least “not cowardly”, is unpopular, and possibly unpatriotic (one is not to consider the killers of our friends and families as “brave”), it is a true statement. If any one person would be asked to kill themselves for a cause they believed in, they would likely not have the courage to give everything for such a cause. Some may join the military and risk their lives, but few would sign up for a mission that is guaranteed to end in untimely death.
Terrorists as Weak
A running meme among professional academics is that terrorism is a tool for the weak. Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris, research scientists with Southwest Research Institute of Boulder, Colorado, partially define terrorism as “a technique for the weak in fighting the powerful” . Professor Donald M. Snow, of the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, also accepts the idea that terrorism is the “tactic of the weak” and — although he is neutral is his analysis — is quick to point out that “there are real limitations on the extent of the danger such groups can physically pose.” [Snow: 288]
Taken in its most literal sense, this concept is true. Terrorists (the retail, not wholesale, sort) are “weak” when compared to their enemies. They lack the funding and military equipment of a government and therefore must resort to more primitive resources. Any attacker of the United States — terrorist or otherwise — would have to be considered weak by default when their resources are compared to the massive military budget of America. The latest figures suggest that America spends as much on defense as the next forty-three countries combined. We could discuss many related issues here, but won’t, as they are outside the scope of defining terrorism.
Where I take issue with calling terrorists “weak” is the implication that they are not significant, not important and can (perhaps ought to) be crushed by the powerful. Calling something “weak”, even when such a comment is true, marginalizes the thing. In some cases this may be fair, in others not. Terrorist acts, like any other act, may be committed for valid reasons or invalid reasons. Regardless of Osama bin Laden’s methods, his ideals are no less important and should not be ignored simply by virtue of his “weakness”. The powerful are not good by default — might does not make right. Those of us living in a country that we see as powerful often neglect this. Look past the rhetoric of politicians who declare that terrorists “hate our freedoms” and listen to what the terrorists say. Bin Laden has called for American troops to be removed from Saudi Arabia, and dsenounces the actions of American military forces on Muslim countries (such as Clinton’s strike on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan).
Sidelining terrorists for their methods is an ethical position — one that I would be inclined to agree with. But sidelining them for “weakness” is a mistake… one could argue that by addressing the concerns of terrorists (what some cynically call “appeasement”) the actions of terrorists would decrease. While Iran is not a terrorist nation, it can be used as a case in point. At present (January 2009), the leaders of Iran have said they would be willing to negotiate with American interests if American leaders would open up more diplomatic channels. President Bush has not allowed such channels, and Iran has not given in to our demands (whether they ought to or not is another matter). The president-elect, Barack Obama, has stated his intention to have talks with Iran. If such talks occur, and Iran continues down its current path, it loses all legitmacy in global eyes — they would not be able to be taken at their word. Talks are a “win-win” for America: either relations with Iran become more friendly, or Iran’s government will lose credibility and international pressure — much more important than American pressure — would increase.
If we define “terrorism” as “weak” and “weak” as “unimportant”, we are making a very big mistake in international relations, not to mention weakening our national security — the very opposite of the objective we should be trying to achieve.
Does Denying Weakness and Cowardice Imply Correctness?
Critics may misinterpret me, saying that I am defending those who commit acts of terror. In fact, I have no desire to defend such acts or those who commit them. Terrorism is something that is best when understood and defused, so my aim is to understand terrorist goals and motivations, not to defend them. Political ends can often be achieved through other, less violent, means. By saying that terrorists are often brave and warning against sidelining them as weak, I am not maing a statement on their ethical positions. Someone or some nation can be brave and strong and still be morally or politically wrong. Just as I stressed that might does not make right, neither does bravery or a popular insurgency. A motivation is right based on the merits of the motivation itself, not in the means it is to be achieved with or who promotes such an idea.
Likewise, ideals and acts need not be lumped together and judged as one. Bin Laden and those like him may be brave and may have morally outstanding ideals (freedom for the Muslim and Arab peoples, for example) and still commit atrocious acts. There is no reason that one cannot denounce terrorism on one hand but support the motivations behind it on the other. Palestinian violence on Israeli civilians, for example, is likely immoral (just as Israeli military strikes on Palestinians are likely immoral). But it is not hard to understand why violent acts occur when the situation is analyzed — the motivation for freedom and equality is strong, and in the eyes of those who commit violent acts, it may seem that no other recourse is possible. (Incidentally, if either Palestinian or Israeli violence is to be seen as “necessary” — and I don’t suspect either are — we may be sympathetic to the repressed, who has been backed into a corner and has nowhere left to turn. We may simply wish their vengeance were better directed.)
Defining terrorism is becoming, or has become, a difficult task. We are not often presented with a pure definition, but a definition filtered through the connotations of the media and our government. The connotations supply us with a very narrow image of terror — the religious fanatic with a bomb strapped to his chest. Our government’s definition, while slightly better, is skewed by the connotations when delivered fro mthe mouths of politicians and press secretaries. We would do well to remember that connotation and denotation, or sense and reference, are often not the same and make a conscious effort to be persuaded by hard facts and not by emotion or rhetoric when dealing with the big issues. Terrorism may be considered one of the “big issues” of our generation, but approaching it without facts or reason does a great disservice and may end up causing more harm than good.
 Chapman and Harris’ description of terrorism was not central to their point. Their article was drawing attention to the relatively small chance people have of dying in a terrorist attack. Such fears, say Harris and Chapman, are irrational. By their count, 2544 people died in this way between 1983 and 1993, whereas 4376 died by terrorist acts from 1993 until 2003. Accounting for population growth, terrorism has not become a more likely cause of death in recent years.
Chapman, Clark R. and Alan W. Harris. “Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris Respond,” Skeptical Inquirer. July/August 2003.
Snow, Donald M. Cases in International Relations: Portraits of the Future, Third Edition. Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.