When Do You Say: That’s Terrorism?

As a linguist I’m always interested in how words are used and how their definitions evolve over time.

Text, once a prosaic noun, has become a very modern verb. Cell used to be a microscopic biological unit or a small part of a revolutionary organization. Today, of course, it’s your phone. We hardly remember a time when a mouse was only a fuzzy grey squeaky creature that invaded the house in the winter.

Not long ago I noticed the apparently expanding use of holocaust. Some writers appear to think that it’s a holocaust to shoot all the deer in their county. The Holocaust is one of the darkest periods in human history and that word should be reserved to designate only that.

The word terrorism has been much in the news lately. When does an incident or attack rise to that level? Is it based on the number of people killed? Do the perpetrators have to die in the act? Do they have to belong to a certain group?

The FBI defines both international and domestic terrorism very specifically:

“International terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.*

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition

These definitions give government agencies a framework for both releasing information and planning their investigations.

Concerned citizens don’t necessarily see those definitions as large enough. Some were angry that the FBI refused to immediately label the attack in San Bernadino as terrorism. (The FBI waited until all 3 characteristics mentioned above were verified.)

Other people seem to feel that the definition needs to be expanded greatly. Is it terrorism when:

  1. 9th grade boys bully the incoming 7th grade boys because they haven’t yet experienced the typical growth spurt?
  2. Workers in a government agency that deals primarily with immigrants yell at the crowd in English, a language many don’t understand?
  3. Health care aids threaten to leave their elderly, helpless charges in soiled linens?
  4. The pit bulls run along the fence and bark at the children walking to school?

I would certainly say that verb terrorize is appropriate for some of these examples, but I would like to reserve terrorism, much like the Holocaust, for specific situations which are:

Big

Bloody

Crafted to gain attention and sow fear in a geographic arena much larger than the actual event

Committed by or on behalf of a specific ideology

Designed to engender a political dialogue and change a policy

Do you agree that terrorism should have limited use? What would you add to my definition? I’d like to hear from you!

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