An Obituary for the Word ‘Terrorist’

Posted on June 19, 2011


Writing about the popular perception of fascism in 1944, George Orwell said the following:

“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

The continuing degradation of the word’s meaning (Orwell would have a field day with neologisms like ‘islamofascist’) has further reinforced Orwell’s claim. It’s this kind of astute observation that places Orwell among my favourite commentators on anything ever. It is regrettable, however, that Orwell lived in a time before Google.  As it is, google meta-analyses of popular language are left to boorish and unsophisticated jerks like me. With that in mind, let’s do a quick and highly unscientific google analysis of the word ‘terrorist’.

A google search of “is a terrorist” yields some hillariawful results. As of this writing, the first link is to a news story about teabaggers claiming that Barack Obama is a terrorist. The next, predictably enough, is the Wikipedia article for terrorism. Then it gets silly. There’s a tweet from wikileaks referencing Joe Biden’s labelling of Julian Assange as a terrorist. There are two more articles about Barack Obama’s known terrorist activities (known by rapper Luke Fiasco, that is), and the results include two youtube videos going for the “people in your everyday life are terrorists” angle: one where somebody’s wife is a terrorist, and one suggesting that British citizens keep an eye on their neighbors, lest they be terrorists. Others accused of being terrorists in the first few pages of the search include Israel, Rachel Ray, the TSA, Pakistan, Jared Loughener, and Michael Jackson, which is at least a little bit funny. Also funny are the autocomplete results. Type “is a terrorist” into Google without quotes and then go back to put an open quotation mark in front of the word (I have no idea why this elaborate procedure is necessary), and you get a list of popular searches which includes such known security threats as Mother Nature, Sidney Crosby and Caillou.


This is nothing new, of course. As is common with politically charged words, terrorism has been slowly broadening its meaning since at least 2001. The difficult thing is to recognize when this process has gone to its logical conclusion, and terrorism has been degraded in meaning to the degree of fascism. How do we know that has happened? It’s a difficult question, but I think it’s safe to say that when the mayor of a major American city justifies the criminalization of free food in a park by labelling the activists who organize them as “food terrorists“, the process has probably reached its logical conclusion. Let me re-state that last point for emphasis: They mayor of Orlando thinks that a free food serving is an act of terrorism. I can think of no surer indication that the word ‘terrorism’ has lost all use as a semantically useful term.

The word has had a good run. We used it to have all kinds of useful debates about post-9/11 politics, and to rightly condemn the actions of violent religious zealots and political extremists. Now that it’s being used as a label to stick to media organizations, cartoon characters, and charitable group feedings, it’s time to let it go. We must acknowledge that the word now means nothing other than ‘person whose political actions I find highly distasteful’, or even just ‘person who I dislike’.

It’s time to choose another politically charged word whose meaning we can distort. How about anarchist? The Vancouver police already seem to be all over that one. Maybe five years from now, I’ll be able to call my PhD supervisor an anarchist for giving me more reading to do. A man can dream.

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