Why the Word “Terrorism” is more Dangerous than Terrorists

By Dr. Thoreau Redcrow

[Excerpt from the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers]

Reporter: “Mr. Ben M’hidi, isn’t it a filthy thing to use women’s baskets to carry explosives for killing people?”

Larbi Ben M’hidi: “Doesn’t it seem even filthier to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, wreaking even greater havoc? It would be better if we, too, had planes. Give me the bombers, and you can have the baskets.”

If I could banish one word from the English language it would be “terrorism” or its accompanying moniker “terrorist”. As both a noun and adjective, terrorist is one of the few terms with no agreed upon legal definition, because there is no consensus on what one is. The term is equally pejorative, polemical, and propagandistic, as nearly nobody self-identifies as a terrorist and both sides in any conflict will reflexively accuse the other of being one.

Further calling into question the terms legitimacy, one only needs to look at history to see how the same Mujahideen in Afghanistan magically went from Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters” greeted at the White House when they were shooting Soviet troops, to the terrorist Taliban that the US then spent over two trillion dollars to bomb for twenty years. But this irrationality was known over a century ago, when the French journalist Octave Mirbeau prophetically cautioned us how, “The greatest danger of a terrorist’s bomb is in the explosion of stupidity that it provokes.”

One way to sardonically define a ‘terrorist’ would be: Someone who has a bomb, but lacks an air force. However, a more cynical (but no less accurate) definition might also be: When an ideological opponent with less sophisticated weaponry has the audacity to reply to your government in the same language they are being spoken to with—unbridled violence. As a discrediting neologism, ‘terrorism’ is the word that essentially means nothing, yet somehow justifies everything in countering it; primarily because it is the symptom not the disease. There is also negligible moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber, since both kill people for political reasons, and all murders are terrifying (and thus produce terror).

Moreover, the idea of terrorism is so insidious because to many people being against it is perceived as a neutral, natural, nonideological, and commonsensical position. Thus, dislodging this intractable hegemony of ‘common sense’ can be extremely difficult, as very few people would even think twice before agreeing that ‘of course’ we should do everything possible to ‘stop terrorism’ or ‘defeat the terrorists’. On the other hand, the problem lies in the reality that this desire does not include one’s own tacit support or participation in the very thing they believe they are against (terrorism)—particularly on the state level (state terrorism)—and often under the guise of preventing it.

Stop Terrorizing and Die Quietly

Stopping terrorism also typically suspends one’s critical thinking skills and dilutes their ability to rationally analyze a situation, since it induces a powerfully cathected social amnesia towards the overall chronology of events. Whereas every action by an entrenched power—even those which incongruously occurred first—becomes ‘payback’ for any ‘terrorist attack’ which may occur, and all proportionality is rendered irrelevant. The answer for why certain states can get away with killing, as Derrick Jensen explains in his work Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization, is that:

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

Such fixations help explain how sanctions or heavy bombing that kills thousands of people from the periphery or third world will barely garner a mention in the Western press, while a single lone act of ‘terrorism’ in a major American or European city—even if it only features a few victims—has the capacity to dominate the news cycle, fully capture the global public consciousness, and eventually engender immense public pressure to ensure it never happens again.

Unfortunately, on the whole, typically preventing those relatively rare instances of ‘terror attacks’ comes with an extremely heavy human price on those populations suspected of potentially producing future attackers. And it is served up alongside a heaping dose of ‘collateral damage’—a deceptively clinical term only applied to the dead children killed by non-terrorists and ostensibly produced in an attempt to stop ‘terrorism’.

But the reason why dissecting the empty social construct of terrorism is important and critical, is that nation states only operate under this disingenuous claim that ‘all is fair in war’ when they are the ones doing the killing. Every oppressive government, regime, or dictatorship when confronted with a guerrilla insurgency will claim that asymmetrical attacks are somehow ‘unfair’. Not much different than British Empire redcoats who objected to 18th century American colonists sniping at them with muskets from treetops, rather than lining up into orderly columns and calmly walking into cannon fire; in our modern era, the term ‘terrorism’ is now increasingly being used to disqualify any and all armed resistance, even when the targets are exclusively military personnel.

Essentially, ‘crying terrorist’ when confronted by any form of violent opposition, is an intellectually inane attempt to pre-emptively render all grievances of the aforementioned ‘heretical’ party illegitimate, a tactic which often works intoxicatingly well. Principally, a common characteristic of oppressive regimes is that any resistance is used as justification for their dominance, establishing a feedback loop where control is vindicated both through acquiescence and confrontation, unfairly leaving the victims no behavioral response that does not justify their own bondage.

Kurdish Resistance as Case in Point

In the case of Turkey, following each PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) defensive attack, the Turkish military will basically claim: ‘Your resistance to my occupation is the reason I behave this way in the first place!’ And the effect of such rhetorical loops is that they attempt to neuter all legitimate resistance of Kurds both internally and to the outside world (as I previously explained in my KCS article on how ‘Nonviolence is a Privilege Denied to Kurdish Guerrillas’). For example, Turkey continually massacres Kurdish civilians and then cries foul when a single PKK fighter ambushes an advancing army convoy or assaults a police station where tortures are being carried out, while conveniently maintaining an extreme obliviousness at how the actions of their military could engender a desperate Kurdish person to carry out such a retaliatory attack of retribution.

Now while it is true that not all violence is liberatory, or even effective at achieving an objective, the ones who ought to get to make that decision should not be those hierarchies with most of the weapons, power, and rising body count of victims, who traditionally are also the ones who chronologically began the hostilities to begin with. As not allowing for any justified armed resistance would mean that occupying or oppressive armies would be allowed to essentially do whatever they like to civilian populations, and the only ‘morally acceptable’ or ‘non-terroristic’ recourse would be to accept submission or die. Or as one Kurdish guerrilla told me years ago in an interview: “Letting Turkey define us is like asking a rapist to describe his victim.”

Yet, my extensive studying of resistance movements has displayed to me that insurgencies—and the inevitable claims of terrorism when they strike back at those attempting to destroy them—almost always arrive at the end of a long timeline of domination, repression, and cruelty. As essentially, to borrow a phrase from the French Revolution, guerrillas like the PKK are, “A storm that had been gathering for years. Just because it burst, you cannot blame the thunderbolt.”

For instance, in the direct case of the PKK and the Turkish occupation of Northern Kurdistan, set aside the 4,000+ Kurdish villages that Turkey’s military burned down throughout the 1990s and just take the situation recently at the end of 2015. At that time, Erdoğan’s dictatorship began enforcing inhumane curfews as protective cover for reducing the Kurdish districts of Sur in Amed, Nisêbîn in Mêrdîn,‎ and Cizîr and Silopi in Şirnex to rubble. Meanwhile, the HDP deputy Ziya Pir described a situation where, “The [Turkish] soldiers, police or some unregistered people that I call ‘head hunters’ rake through everything from top to bottom wherever they see life.” While Professor Sebnem Fincanci—the president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV)—recounted a scene where, “The [Turkish Army] snipers shoot at water reservoirs. They cut off electricity. The shoot at people directly. It reminds me of the Bosnian genocide, the mass graves where I worked.” In an additional description of the carnage inflicted upon Kurdish civilians, the Turkish journalist Uzay Bulut described how:

“During these curfews, the Turkish military and police have targeted, terrorized and demolished entire Kurdish neighborhoods. The curfews are accompanied by military assaults against civilian populations—their homes, businesses, offices, historical monuments, reservoirs and infrastructure, are being bombed and destroyed… The Turks are using aerial bombardment, sniper fire, artillery fire, tanks, helicopters and thousands of soldiers. When someone is wounded or gets seriously sick, and their family members need to take them to hospital, they are shot by snipers, or sometimes they are shot just at the windows of their homes. In the Kurdish town of Silopi, police vehicles broadcast announcements that it is forbidden to look out of the windows.”

In fact, it was in Silopi where a fifty-seven-year-old Kurdish mother of eleven named Taybet Inan was soon sniped and murdered for violating the curfew, as Turkish soldiers ensured that her lifeless body openly rotted on the street for seven days, while her children helplessly watched from their home 150 meters away. Her son Tamer later explained how they tried to retrieve her body, but in so doing their uncle was shot as well. In another curfew-related murder, a ten-year-old Kurdish girl Cemile Cagirga was executed by Turkish soldiers outside her home in Cizîr, and her family was forced to store her corpse in their freezer for three days because of their street being under constant siege.

So, you effectively had a situation where the Turkish Government was terrorizing the local Kurdish population with every military means at their disposal and traumatizing thousands of Kurdish children, while also killing hundreds of Kurdish civilians. For instance, in just one tragic sequence the Turkish military mass murdered and burned alive 178 people trapped in three basements in the town of Cizîr. However, if a Kurdish teenager who had one of their family members killed had decided to take a gun and shoot a Turkish sniper who was targeting his civilian neighbors from the rooftops, then the Turkish press would have reported the story as ‘a Kurdish terrorist killed a Turkish martyr’, and give the fallen soldier a state funeral replete with all the pomp and circumstance that Turkish ultra-nationalism can provide. Which is exactly why the idea of ‘terrorism’ is so insidious, because it complicates the inherent morality of situations and excuses nearly all state-based tyranny. Or as a Kurdish guerrilla rhetorically asked me in 2014: “If a slave owner is terrified of his abused slaves rising up against him, is this terrorism?”

Saving is not the same as Enslaving

Now, are there lumpenized armed groups without sufficient grievances—who are heinously driven by sociopathic anti-humanist tendencies—and purposefully target civilians to induce panic? Of course, and those groups deserve to suffer defeat and be brought to justice for their crimes. I would also argue that past systemic persecution is not a sufficient justification to then carry out your own collective abuses and cruelty. So for instance, a group like ISIS would not be justified in carrying out mass rape or enslavement of Yazidi (Êzidî) women, regardless of the inhumane conditions which created them, and consequently they deserve to be defeated for attempting such callous actions that also violate the inalienable rights of their victims. But such stark and clear cases of terrorists like ISIS are relatively rare, and even then, I would argue the term ‘terrorist’ is not useful, as it does far more harm than good because of the numerous ways it is dishonestly weaponized.

For example, the dubiousness of the distinction is directly present in the aforesaid case of ISIS, as one of the groups that most effectively defeated them and pushed them back from their campaign of wanton sadism, were the foreign ‘terrorist-listed’ PKK. Making matters even worse and more illogical, one of the chief sponsors and strategic benefactors of ISIS was the Turkish Government, a regime responsible for giving the PKK their unjustified ‘terrorist’ label to the outside world. So, you have a situation where female PKK guerrillas helped famously save 40,000 Yazidis (many of them women and young girls) from sexual enslavement by ISIS terrorists on Mount Sinjar in 2014, and people expect the public not to scratch their head and wonder why both parties share the same verbal classification? The reason is because the term has become hollow, contextual to vantage point, and meaningless.

A further reason why ‘terrorism’ is dangerous as a construct is that acts of ‘terror’ are almost never desultory occurrences, but are usually a reaction to some repeated form of structural subjugation. In reality, such attacks are typically a signal that human desperation is growing, and that a situation is being fostered where a confluence of people see very few options available to them to stop their suffering. Take for instance the words of Salih Oğuz, a civilian Kurdish walnut farmer from the recently destroyed village of Akçabudak, who told a reporter in the mid-1990s:

“The Turkish soldiers came and told us we were terrorists and that they wanted to burn the place. All my friends and I are living in Amed now; there is no way we can support ourselves here and we don’t know what to do.”

The reality is that many Kurds with no other options ‘headed to the mountains’, a shorthand phrase for becoming a PKK guerrilla. As the calculation was made that if unbearable anguish is inevitable regardless of how much one resists, then they may as well retain some of their dignity through fighting back. And in so doing, they either help defeat the enemy and emancipate themselves, or die in the process and thereby release themselves from further despair anyway. Consequently, if you want to stop ‘terrorism’, then the best course of action may be for occupying states to stop terrorizing the future ‘terrorists’.


  • Thoreau Redcrow

    Dr. Thoreau Redcrow is an American global conflict analyst who specializes in geopolitics, stateless nations, and armed guerrilla movements. He is a frequent speaker before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and has been a foreign policy advisor for several groups seeking self-determination. He has previously worked on the ground throughout Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Africa, and the Middle East. He is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch).

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