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the words of dan sumners

It is by calling acts of violence ‘terrorism’ that we are terrorised

15 June 2016

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘terrorism’ as “unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”. Wikipedia as “the use of violence, or threatened use of violence, in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological aim”. And as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes”.

Omar Matteen carried out his act of violence alone. He was apparently not affiliated to any group. According to his wife he showed no sign of wanting to carry out acts of violence on behalf of a group or cause.

Why, then, is everyone describing what he did as terrorism? If terrorism means anything, surely it means a programme of violence, or threatened violence, to further a stated aim.

I’m sure the people who were in Pulse were terrified. And we all may experience terror when we contemplate the fact that anybody could do such a thing at any time.

But if that makes Matteen’s actions terrorism, we have to label every act of violence ‘terrorism’. So Russian and English football fans were terrorists if anyone at the game, or who might go to a game in future, felt terror at the prospect of such violence. Surely not.

Maybe then it’s the level of violence. So are the many people who have opened fire at a school in the United States terrorists? No – the perpetrator of the most recent incident, at UCLA, was called a ‘gunman’. But then, he did only kill one person. But neither was Adam Lanza, who killed 28 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, labelled a ‘terrorist’.

It seems impossible not to draw the conclusion that Matteen’s actions are being labelled ‘terrorism’ because he is not white and a Muslim. Whether he had links with any group is irrelevant, so the thinking may go, if he said he was doing it on their behalf.

But that doesn’t explain why seemingly intelligent, thoughtful, non-bigoted people are jumping on this linguistic bandwagon. Owen Jones, who walked out of a Sky News interview because the interviewer refused to acknowledge Matteen targeted LGBT people, describes the violence as “both a terrorist attack and a homophobic attack”.

Barack Obama seems to be more reflective. He is now describing Matteen’s actions as “extremism”, even though he associates it with wider ‘plots’ and initially referred to it as “an act of terror, and an act of hate”. Perhaps it is because he understands the implication of there being “no clear evidence that he was directed externally”.

Because if we call every act of violence carried out by someone who appears to be a member of a particular religion – or who says they are doing it on behalf of a country that is mainly made up of members of a particular religion – then we will be terrorised. We will believe anyone connected with that religion could do something similar at any moment. We will believe ‘we’ are at war with ‘them’.

I am not going to cite a number of dystopian films and books that suggest our governments use the threat of terrorism to keep us under control. I will not quote Noam Chomsky. I will not blame ‘the media’.

Because it is us – all of us – who are doing this. Governments, armed forces, the media, religions – they are all made up of us, of people. And it is we who are having the conversation in the way we are having it. We are all responsible for what we are saying, and for what we are not questioning.

Despite his intelligence, education, and experience as a community organiser and civil rights attorney, Barack Obama used the term ‘self-radicalised’. I know what he meant by it. But what does the term itself, and the fact it was used by such a person, mean?

Does a self-radicalised person set out to radicalise their self? They must do, because otherwise they would have been radicalised by someone or something external to them.

At want point do they become self-radicalised – the point at which they decide to self-radicalise? It can’t be, because then the something that drove them to choose to self-radicalise would be at the root of their radicalisation.

It must be later then. Which means there must be a chance they will fail, just as someone could fail to radicalise someone else. But that means that, at the point they decided to radicalise their self, they were not radicalised. So why did they choose to try and radicalise their self?

As well as being a linguistic absurdity, this term leaves no room for the impact of environment on a person. We now know that myriad internal and external factors have an impact on who each of us is. Is everyone who carries out a violent act after reading or watching things ‘self-radicalised’, whether they have a mental illness, are abused, or are otherwise brought up in an unforgiving environment?

We are so quick to react, to have something to say, it seems we are, at an exponential rate, forgetting how to think. Worse, we are forgetting what it took us thousands of years to learn: the importance of thinking before speaking.

Everything said about this incident before 14 June must be reappraised now we know Mateen was a regular at Pulse. But the damage is done. The word ‘terrorism’ once again screams inside our heads, when what we may have witnessed was an unwell person playing out in real life the frustrations American Beauty explored in story.

Will Owen Jones review his description of this violence as “terrorism”, and will Barack Obama still think of it as an “act of hate”, if we discover Matteen was indeed a gay man who grew up with a father who believes homosexuals will be punished by god? Will they come to understand it as an act of frustration carried out by a mentally ill man, someone who was not allowed to be who he knew he was? Will any of the thousands who gathered in Soho come to think maybe they should have had Matteen in their thoughts too?

Even if they do, we will be a little more terrorised than we were before. Unconsciously we will carry a little more fear with us, a little more suspicion. We will feel an all pervasive, ever present threat.

This constant ramping up of the feeling of threat can be avoided by waiting until all the information is in before we make a judgement. We must simply think before we speak.

But it is not so simple, because to do that we have to take control of the increasingly efficient means of communication we have created. They are potentially a means of greater cooperation and understanding, but we are allowing them to control our behaviour.

Those of us who are politicians, news reporters, journalists and television hosts comment because the news cycle has no gaps and does not end. Those of us who are Facebook and Twitter users comment rapidly and volubly because otherwise we are not the best Facebook and Twitter users we can be. The means by which we communicate have become more important than why we communicate.

Human communication can help us to better understand ourselves, each other and the nature of the world we live in. Unfortunately, it can also do the opposite.

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