Why can’t some people just call terrorists ‘terrorists’?

While there is no question that the term terrorism is overused, there are puzzling occasions on which it is not used at all.

OTTAWA, CANADA — Words matter. We all know that. In a time of protest over ‘systemic racism’ and ‘inherent bias’, the phrases we choose to label things – people, events, phenomena – does affect how we see them, interpret them, and react to them.

In my days as a linguistics professor I used to remind my students that the meaning of words shift not only over time (did you know that the English word ‘girl’ once referred to a young person of either sex?) but even among speakers in real time. Dictionary definitions are not definitive: language is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving.

If there is one word that seems to defy delineation it is the word ‘terrorist’ (or ‘terrorism’). Aside from the Reaganesque ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, it is very hard, if not impossible, to gain agreement on what constitutes a terrorist and what does not.

In a way this is natural as we all have our own views and political stances such that we can quite easily justify the use of violence in a ‘righteous cause’ and still condemn a very similar cause with which we disagree. Going back to my Reagan example, that US President called the ‘Contras’, Nicaraguans who fought against the Sandinista government in the 1980s, ‘freedom fighters’. This was anything but surprising as his administration saw the overthrow of the hated Somoza regime as a communist coup aided by Cuba (recall that this was the era of the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire’). But if you asked Nicaraguans, and I did as I was in that country in 1986, these actors were most definitely terrorists.

In my days as a linguistics professor, I used to remind my students that the meaning of words shift not only over time but even among speakers in real time.

But at times there really is no justification from any angle not to use the ‘T-word’ to describe the violent actions of a given group. Two cases I come across daily in my scanning/tweeting/blogging/podcasting are the Taliban in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Both are very clearly Islamist extremist groups who use and condone violence in the furtherance of some aberrant interpretation of Islam under which they will create a sham ‘Islamic state’.

Watch: Research finds Canadians among most active in online right-wing extremism

‘Militants’ or ‘insurgents’, rarely ‘terrorists’

And yet I constantly read in local media that members of these groups are ‘militants’ or ‘insurgents’. Rarely ‘terrorists’. And for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Their deeds, ranging from Boko Haram’s use of six-year old girls as suicide bombers to the Taliban’s regular attacks on civilians, really cannot be seen by any discerning person as anything other than terrorism.

I do not think that the writers who use terms like ‘militant’ or ‘insurgent’ are sympathetic to either these groups’ causes or methods. Nor do I think they are afraid of retribution should these organisations read they are being called terrorists. So what gives?

I think it is laziness, of the intellectual variety. Writers have not done their homework, have not looked into the background of these heinous bunches of violent humans and hence are not very savvy on the topics upon which they have chosen to share their thoughts. They are, quite simply, out of their depth.

Writers have not done their homework, have not looked into the background of these heinous bunches of violent humans and hence are not very savvy on the topics upon which they have chosen to share their thoughts.

When I read these stories and tweet links to them I always replace ‘insurgent’ or ‘militant’ with ‘terrorist’. I do not think this is messing with their creative freedom: I think it is correcting a serious error. No one has yet come back to me with accusations of tampering with editorial content.

My challenge to my readers is to be bold. Call it terrorism when it is. Don’t use softer terminology to describe what is anything but a soft activity. At the same time, feel free to push back on those cases where there is legitimate debate on whether violence carried out is indeed terrorist in nature or not (such as with incel violence).

But when it comes to Boko Haram or the Taliban, these groups are terrorists. Period.


This contribution was published on The Chaos Group on July 06, 2020

Phil Gurski

2 thoughts on “Why can’t some people just call terrorists ‘terrorists’?

  1. Hello Phil, the timing of this piece led me to think you might mention Rideau Hall. Terrorism or not? Hurren has the hallmarks of right wing domestic radicalization, yet police have not charged him with the T word. Social media is replete now with comments that systemic racism is at play by not calling him a terrorist because he’s White (I see no data to support this across Canada, US and European cases) and many are calling him a terrorist openly.

    As a would-be assassin, his TTPs were amateurish at best with obviously no advance reconnaissance of the site or of his intended target’s location.

    So, in this vein, when is a terrorist a terrorist?

    1. Thanks Frederic for your comments. As I noted over a dozen interviews since Friday with CTV and CBC there simply is not enough info yet to call it terrorism. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. The Crown can always lay terrorism charges later if they deem enough is there to warrant and prove that. Take care!

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