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Linguistic Terrorism?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 1, 2008 2 Comments

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries an opinion piece that calls out “many [in the] prominent Western media [for being] reluctant to call the [Mumbai] perpetrators terrorists.” He accuses the BBC of being “anti-Semitic” and the New York Times “disgraceful,” in their coverage of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. He further criticizes journalists for attempting to “mangle language,” going on to ask, “How are we going to effectively confront terrorists when we can’t even identify them as such?”

There’s too much going on in his article, so I am going to confine myself to some select points about his argument. Gross (the author of the piece) expresses outrage over the Times’ (UK) decision to use the word “militant“: “Do they somehow wish to express sympathy for these murderers, or perhaps make their crimes seem almost acceptable?” First, I found many articles in Time containing both the words “militant” and “terrorist” in the same article, especially in my review of the latest Mumbai attacks. Second, as a citizen of a country with a long history of “terrorism,” I am actually more used to hearing the word “militant.” The word “terrorism” reached a certain preeminence with the 9/11 attacks, but that isn’t the only word that has currency, isn’t the only word that can convey heinous attacks against a hapless citizenry. Many Indians-and the Indian media, and the government-routinely refer to terrorists as militants, as I am wont to do. I defy Gross to tell me that I-and others who use the term-necessarily feel sympathy for those who attack my country, my people, simply because I use a word he doesn’t find appropriate.

How are we mangling language? Words are nuanced, words come with their own histories, their own contexts, their own pasts. Is his implication that we must use one word, and one word alone, in denouncing those that attack us in vicious ways? Gross’ net argument is that we should clamp down on our vocabularies in order to get it right? We don’t all understand “terrorism” the same way; our experiences with it, immediate and distant, shape how we understand it. Whether we call something terrorism or militancy, the context of the anger and outrage around it must exceed mere word boundaries.

Returning to his question: “”How are we going to effectively confront terrorists when we can’t even identify them as such?” I think it’s downright dangerous to think there is only one label that you can apply towards such reprehensible groups. Such kind of linguistic prescriptivism, I feel, trivializes the myriad and complex ways in which “terrorism” or “militancy” should be framed and understood by the public, the media, and various governments.

Opening up the floor…to FITizens.

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2 Responses to “Linguistic Terrorism?”

  1. daveski on: 2 December 2008 at 11:26 am

    Great points about the histories of words, so important perhaps especially for English where the words ‘look’ the same but mean differently in different places. It’d be interesting to do a little word-history of “terrorism” to see how it’s changed in the media over the past decade(s)…I also noticed a Berkeley event on facebook, “Candlelight Vigil for the Victims of Mumbai Terrorism”; and another hosted by the House of Curries, “House of Curries Fundraiser for the Mumbai Victims” where the poster takes a different direction with the title, “do you part – HELP MUMBAI BLAST VICTIMS”

    BTW, “Fitizens”…cool!

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 2 December 2008 at 8:18 pm

    I tried Googling “history of the word terrorism” on Scholar, and found a reference to this book: Religion and Violence in a Secular World,” Clayton Crockett, in which he quotes Derrida’s take on it; he aligns it with struggles in “nation-states,” so I imagine it’s a newer word. Your comment is intriguingly open-ended about excavating this word; which media? what period? which languages?

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