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June 5, 2015 12:42 pm

No More ‘Terrorism’ or ‘Terrorists’ for Me

avatar by Daniel Pipes

Email a copy of "No More ‘Terrorism’ or ‘Terrorists’ for Me" to a friend
Debris outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris following the November 2011 attack there. The BBC refused to call the gunmen "terrorists." Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin.

Debris outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris following the November 2011 attack there. Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin.

When the British Broadcasting Corporation, the world’s largest news operation, decided in January not to call the gunmen who attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo terrorists, this made an impression on me.

The head of the BBC Arabic service, Tarik Kafala, explained its reasoning: “Terrorism is such a loaded word. The U.N. has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are, and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like ‘terrorist,’ which people will see as value-laden.”

If the BBC and the U.N. cannot define this little word, neither can anyone else, including politicians, the police and specialists. One study, titled “Political Terrorism,” lists 109 definitions for terrorism and debates over its meaning. The concept just involves too many moving parts — personnel, weapons, tactics, networks, and goals. 

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An American security specialist, David Tucker, urges those who would define it instead to simply “abandon hope,” like those entering hell. His Israeli counterpart, Boaz Ganor, jokes that “the struggle to define terrorism is sometimes as hard as the struggle against terrorism itself.”

Does it make sense to soldier on, fighting a semantic battle that will never be won? Why argue for a word that everyone agrees is confusing and some find loaded?

Therefore, I too have stopped using “terrorism” and “terrorist” (“counterterrorism,” however, is a tougher word to drop). It’s not worth the fight. Better to use words like “violent,” “murderous,” “Islamist,” and “jihadi,” words that do not generate a definitional uproar. Better not to have to waste time arguing that the U.S. or Israeli governments are not terrorist.

Worse, this argument over terrorism diverts attention from the important fact, which is destruction and murder. Rather than have a debate whether an act of violence meets some theoretical threshold, let’s focus on the real problems.

I have written and spoken about 200 times about terrorism and I argued over decades for its coherent use.  My Washington Post letter to the editor on this topic in 1984 will attest to that. As recently as last October, I co-authored an article arguing that the legal and financial implications of the word “terrorism” require that it have “a precise and accurate definition, consistently applied.” My new view is that legal and financial documents should be re-written without the term terrorism.

It has been five months now since these words fell out of my vocabulary, long enough to be able to report that my analyses hold up and my political efforts are undimmed. In fact, I am better off unburdened of it and its vocabulary debates. You would be too.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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  • jeb stuart

    The NVA and VC used terrorist tactics. Terrorism is a political devise that is why politicians and diplomats have such a hard time with the word, they don;t wish to get any of it on their expensive suits.
    Whole regimes like Hussein’s committed atrocities, war crimes, mass suffering and today in America the liberals and libertarians are apologists for Hussein as if the problem was the use of force by the USA to remove a man who was the greatest mass murderer of the second half of the 20th Century and the apologetic by liberals is Hussein’s legacy.
    Do not expect politicians or diplomats to know what terrorism is even with a rusty blade to their throats. Idiots.
    If you want a legal over view of terrorism I suggest you read the new pdf file, “Protective Edge” published by the Israeli Government that better defines Hamas than Europe is able to do.

  • SARA RIFKA

    OK…..THE WORD ‘T(&(^*%*)ISM….NO LONGER LIVES…..SO, JUST GET INTO YOUR JEEP, TANK AND WHATEVER IS NEEDED TO JUST FILL THESE &)(&^^^ISTS WTH BULLETS, BOMBS AND A GOOD SLAP IN THE FACE FOR SHORT RANGE.

    IF THIS WORD DOES NOT EXIST THEN SLEEPING AWAY FROM THE MARITAL BED IS NOT EITHER…..BULLYING AS WELL….SO WHEN YOU THINK YOU CAN NOT PROPEL THE PROPER MEETING OF A WORD THEN GET RID OF THE SPEAKER.

  • Genghis Cohen

    If the UN and BBC are opposed to the word, terror, it can only indicate that the word is effective. Any other word which replaces it would also be opposed by these institutions if that word also proved to be effective.Tactics of sudden murder among defenseless people are intended to generate terror generally. Such tactics have been in use by Islam against its own people over the generations to enforce sharia. Rather than “moderating” the word, SHOUT IT MORE OFTEN IN HIGH PLACES.

  • Genghis Cohen

    Please Mr. Pipes,if not terrorist or terrorism, then what?Terrorists impose their will upon society by generating terror using methods outside of the laws of civilization. Brutus and Cassius killed Caesar who had just been appointed “Dictator for Life” by the Roman Senate, and the result for Rome was the decline of Senatorial power. Gavrilo Princep’s gun was provided him by the Black Hand, a Serbian Terrorist mob. His assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife was the direct cause of WWI, the rise of Hitler and WWII with atomic bombs. We must not use a term that moderates the horrendous impact of terrorist tactics upon civilization

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