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What’s in a Word

March 14, 2015

Without referencing a dictionary, can you define the word terror? If you can, I envy your seemingly eidetic memory. If you can’t its ok; your confusion has been strategically placed. Words and phrases like these are what modern political scientists call “glittering generalities,” which reference words or phrases that sound very appealing, but in reality have no substance behind them. A recent example of a “glittering generality” is President Obama’s 2004 campaign slogan, “Yes We Can,” or George W. Bush’s “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the enemy.” Phrases like these are examples of terminology, which ignite patriotism and united stances towards common national goals. But what do these phrases actually mean? What can we do? Who is the enemy?

Geopolitics is a tricky business and with the advancement of social media, where information travels at the speed of light, politicians have had to learn how to adjust the framing of issues, especially issues that are widely unpopular in the U.S. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the U.S. was able to garner public support against the former U.S.S.R. and against the dire threat of “Communism.” Fast-forward to modern times, and the latest “glittering generality” has become “terrorism.” Our elected officials would have us believe that the word terror refers to any and all persons or groups who would threaten the sovereignty of the U.S. But who defines what constitutes terror and what “acts of terror” demand our attention? Was the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 a terrorist act? Most would answer in the affirmative, and of course they would be correct, but what about the Columbine shootings in 1999, or the atrocities being committed in Sierra Leone? We have appropriately responded to global threats of terror with resounding and unflinching military force, yet it seems we blissfully ignore issues of gun violence, genocide, and poverty, even as the numbers of these incidents increase year after year.

We Americans, however, are not bad people. Our values are entrenched in “justice and liberty for all,” yet we seem to have selective hearing when it comes to which incidences of “terror” we respond to.

The truth is, it is not our fault. We rely on our public officials and media outlets to tell us the truth about domestic and world issues so that we may make sound and educated decisions when we stand in line to vote. We forget, however, that most of our politicians and Presidents are, or were, attorneys and extremely skilled at explaining facts in a light most favorable to their interests. Words like “terror” and “Communism” have become “glittering generalities,” because among other reasons, our elected officials have capitalized on our feelings of patriotism and inability to notice the slippery slope these words create. Think back to the anger, sadness, and confusion we all felt after 9/11, and the ensuing military campaigns. Phrases like “weapons of mass destruction” and “terrorism” were thrown around so often that we failed to realize, or even admit, that the United Nations inspectors found no such weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we invaded nonetheless. In fact the word “Islam” itself became vilified to the point that anyone wearing a turban, Sikh or Muslim, radical or not, was targeted as a “terrorist” or “anti-American.”

Interestingly enough, there is no real consensus on what the word “terror” actually means. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, college dictionaries, and scholars alike all attribute different definitions to the word “terror.” Most would agree that “terror” is a state of extreme fear, whether it be through violent actions or words. So then, if we indeed have embarked on a “War on Terror,” we should be attacking those who would commit genocide against African children being forced to work the diamond mines of Sierra Leone. We should be attacking those who would increase the ease and availability of military grade weaponry for common citizens. We should be attacking those who seek to ignore poverty in our own nation, leaving millions of American adults and children in extreme fear of starving to death, and we should be attacking the policies of our elected officials as to why nothing is being done.

You may say that the people of Africa, impoverished U.S. citizens, or the thousands of starving immigrants standing at our borders are not our problem, but they too live in “terror.” They too are victims of violent words or actions which have instilled in them an “extreme fear” of their unknown futures, and the more we throw around words like “terror” and “immigrant,” the more we blur the lines of the very language we speak and cherish. Those of us with a strong command of the English language must use it to help us understand our own differences, and the realities of where we chose to place our hard earned tax dollars, not to create confusion and divisiveness. It is our responsibility as burgeoning attorneys, writers, scholars, and advocates to shake off the glitter of these generalities, and to replace “terror” with hope, “immigrant” with American, and to call a “spade” a spade.