Pro-Israeli terrorists plot to assassinate Obama

22 Jun

I thought that headline might gain attention. It relates to a story that has been in the news in which the FBI foiled a plot by two men in Upstate New York who plotted to kill Obama and Muslims with a homemade X-Ray gun. The men wanted to attack to attack ‘the enemies of Israel’ and to bring about ‘Hiroshima on a light switch’. Their plot was foiled when members of a synagogue, who had been contacted by the plotters, alerted the FBI.
One of the remarkable aspects of the reportage of the story is that the ‘terrorism’ word is not used. As far as I could see, ‘terrorism’ or related words like ‘terrorist’ or ‘terror’, were absent from headlines in the Daily Telegraph (London), Fox News, The Age, USA Today, ABC News, Daily Mail and just about every news source I could see. Indeed the only news sources that I could see that used the ‘terrorist’ word in its headline was Illume Magazine, an online magazine that aims to ‘connect America’s eight million Muslims with the rest of the world’.
There is something very odd going on here. This was a plot to use a weapon of mass destruction (a real one as opposed to an imaginary one) against a designated group (Muslims). One of the plotters was alleged to have said that ‘everything with respiration will be dead by morning’. So the intention was to kill large numbers of people (and indeed animals) with limited attempt to discriminate between targets. And the terrorism is still absent from the headlines! Even odder is that the men were charged with ‘conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists’. So the US government believes that this is a bona fide ‘terrorist plot’ yet news organisations are nervous about using the T-word.
Why? It is impossible to know. One might speculate that this was a political decision because these were pro-Israeli plotters and much of the mainstream media is nervous of criticizing Israel. Or perhaps it is because the plotters were ‘homegrown’ rather than from overseas, and so the T-word is not used.
What all of this underlines is that the use of the T-word is arbitrary. Its use does not seem to be linked to the actions or intentions of plotters. Instead, it seems to be linked to the politics they espouse and the worldview of the user of the phrase. If the term is so loaded, then why do we persist in using it? It has become an utterly useless vessel. It has little analytical or descriptive purchase. It does not help us discriminate between various types of violence.
As has often been pointed out, both conventional weapons used by state forces and weapons used by non-state armed groups are deliberately designed to instil terror. Whether it was the siren attached to the Stuka dive-bomber in WWII or huge publicity the US gave to its ‘daisy cutter’ bomb in the 2001 assault on Afghanistan, the aim was the same: to instil terror. So what is the point of this ‘terrorism’ word if it does not help us understand, identify or narrow down a social phenomenon? Here, I think, we must look to emotion, politics and political economy. Surely our debates on political violence deserve a more precise language.

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