Let’s stop talking about terrorism

I recently wrote about how most definitions of terrorism make me think that rape should be included in that category. But I’d like to make my view on terrorism a bit clearer: I actually don’t think it’s a very useful concept.

My view is that either every crime-with-victim is a form of terrorism, or there is no such thing as terrorism at all.

It’s not as if some fear-causing crimes fall into a special category; it’s a spectrum with subtle gradations. For example, you might feel unsettled if someone steals a hose from your unlocked garden, slightly more unsettled if the gate was locked and you realise they had to climb over it, properly worried if they smashed a window.

More serious crimes like mugging or burglary tend to cause genuine, non-negligible fear. However strong you are, you will probably be frightened and you will probably change your behaviour (however pointlessly) to reassure yourself that it can’t happen again.

If you repeatedly break into houses to steal, you are carrying out a campaign of fear. Your intention might just be to get the wide-screen telly, but you cannot fail to be aware that when you break into someone’s house, you will frighten them. Repeatedly carrying out an act that’s guaranteed to frighten people and disrupt their lives: how is that not terrorism? Just because you’re doing it for money? When we focus on what the perpetrator intended – “I didn’t mean to scare him” – and not on how the victim feels, we’re letting the perpetrator write the script.

The other side of the coin is that when we treat terrorism as different from regular crime, concepts of justice and fairness go out of the window.

Others have written, better than I ever could, about state-sanctioned torture, about detention without trial, about how the state can ignore human rights and due process in the name of protecting people from terrorism. I don’t think I need to go into that here. But I would add that along with the lefty concerns for human rights, there’s a strong right-wing argument for ditching this bullshit: if the crime is so bad, we should hurry up with finding out who did it, giving them a trial and locking them up. Not locking them up for an indefinite period because they might have done it; locking them up for a defined period because they did do it.

If you decide that some categories of crime are somehow “different”, you get a sloppy, emotion-driven, made-up-on-the-spot approach to justice. You get attempts to retrospectively apply laws that didn’t exist at the time of the alleged offence; you get “interrogations” that don’t result in any useful information but do result in the death of the person being interrogated; you get violations of international law; you get the police pushing for the right to question suspects for longer without charge; you get the police using terrorism legislation to arrest press photographers.

In other words, you get a justice system that’s less efficient at its job of protecting citizens, less efficient at its job of delivering justice. And you get a lot of state agents trying to take advantage of the messiness to seize more power for themselves. I think it’s possible to be very right-wing but still object to the concept of “terrorism” on the grounds that it just isn’t fit for purpose. That’s why I wish we could stop talking about terrorism and just talk about crime.

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2 Comments on “Let’s stop talking about terrorism”

  1. OMM Says:

    Terrorism seems to fall somewhere on a continuum between hate crime and war. I can never decide whether hate crime is a useful concept for some of the reasons you outline about terrorism.

  2. gryphon Says:

    Thanks for this comment. I have the same uncertainty about the concept of hate crime.


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