“There is no fighting in the war room!” –Doctor Strangelove
While we are at war with an abstract concept, with Terror, with a word, it seems like we should have a rigorous definition of that word. I would prefer that the decision of who is worthy of justified killing be decided in The Pentagon, not the offices of Merriam-Webster and The Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s why: A few weeks ago, over the course of a few days, I heard a word used in two different ways. I mean really different ways. Using one word in lots of ways is not a problem for language or usually for everyday life. This time, however, it was a problem. It was an issue of life and death.
The word was terror.
The first time I heard it used I was at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. They have a thrill ride called The Tower of Terror. When you go in the ride, you are taken up in what seems like an elevator to reach the top of a tall, supposedly supernaturally evil tower building. Then comes the thrill, the terror. An elevator malfunction is simulated, and the car is let loose. Now you are in an elevator in free fall. After a few long seconds the fall slows and the car stops and you are alright. You are better than alright, actually, because you are all hopped up on adrenaline, which is a fun little molecule.
Days later and I was at another tourist attraction, but one altogether less likely to be described as “the happiest place on earth”. It is, however, another place where you are likely to hear both the word ‘terror’ and the word ‘tower’. I was at Ground Zero. It was my second time in that spot, the first being a visit to the top of the second tower of the World Trade Center, when there were still two towers there.
We are in an ongoing war and it is called, or at least it was christened, The War on Terror. It was a pretty clever piece of marketing to name it that. What’s in a name? Nothing. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. What happened on 9/11, 2001 at the spot I was standing would have made my house, some 90 blocks North of Ground Zero, smell just as much like jet fuel until November, had it been the product of any less evil a type of intention.
It would have felt just as much like the thrill ride to the people inside those towers of Terror had it not been intended to terrify and terrorize a nation and a world. It probably didn’t feel like the ride at all.
Later, I was watching the news. A tragedy, it showed, had struck a British soldier. Lee Rigby, a soldier and veteran, was hit by a car and stabbed to death outside of a military barracks in London. Then, in an apparent copycat attack, a French soldier was stabbed in a train station in Paris. The media in Europe covered the stories around the clock. Both David Cameron, Prime Minister of The UK, and Francois Hollande, Prime minister of France, cancelled engagements, held conferences, spoke on television. The subject of their speeches and conferences was this: Were these attacks acts of Terror?
It seems like the answer is yes, they were acts of terror. There were acts of terror in so far as they were non-random acts of violence inspired by a fanatical belief in this or that nationalism or religion or some other faction of human artifice.
It also seems like the answer is no, they were not acts of terror. They were not acts of terror in so far as they were small, personal, and isolated. They were not acts of terror in that had they occurred in the year 2000, they would not have inspired President George W. Bush to go on television and call for the nation to go to war, and to boast about the awesome and righteous avenging power of the United States Military and those of her allies. They were not acts of terror because they looked a whole lot like the random acts of violence and murder that scared and lonely and passionate people inexplicably perpetrate every day.
But, the world held its breath. And, indeed, the media and the governments which the victims served made a ruling, and that ruling was that these were Terror, not terror.
This is not a moral appeal. This is not a political appeal. This is a linguistic appeal.
I want to be clear. I am not levying the inveterate criticism that the consequences of going to war against an abstract concept are that it has no end and is too broad and is, ultimately, doomed to fail. I am not saying that there is no non-trivial difference between acts of terror and other acts of violence.
Rather, I am saying that as far as words can have public use, they need to have public meaning. I am saying that the very word ‘definition’ comes from ‘fines’, which simply means limits. To define is to explicitly place limits on what things can and cannot be called that word. I am saying that words are tokens which pick out the objects in the world, which is what they “mean”.
I am saying and have said that the sort of arguing over the limits of a word (its definition) is fundamentally different from the sort of arguing over what can justify beginning a war, or continuing to prosecute a war. I am saying that if we are still arguing about whether these knife attacks fall within the limits of the things that the word “terror” picks out, we have foregone a crucial conversation.
If there is nothing in a name, if a name, linguistically, basically just exists to point at something, then we need to make sure we are not at war with a name, Terror, which points at the wrong things, or worse, one that points at everything. At the very least, we need to make sure people can't simply pick it up and point it at anything. If we are to aim and fire the full force and power of the United States Military, that should be done with thought, and purpose, and reflection, not with pedantry. We are mincing human beings by not mincing words.
As it stands, the unsmiling lawyer, the over-burdened and over-empowered politician, and the concerned citizen are giving great import to linguistic definitions, and ignoring real consequences in doing so. We need to be clear about what it means to designate something ‘Terror’ or to decline to designate something as ‘Terror’. We need to be careful to not give the use of that designation, an art not a science, too much importance. If we are in a War on Terror, then let’s make sure we are all using the same dictionary.
What do we mean when we talk about ‘Terror’? I’m not exactly sure, but somebody sure as hell better be.