Frequent visitors to my blog know that few things irritate me as much as when “they” co-opt language in a way so subtle that the rest of us barely notice it. I’ve written, for example, about the so-called “war” on just about everything, whether women or Christmas or religion or unions or teachers or poverty. I’ve also exposed the ways in which legislatures redefine such simple and obvious words like “zero” which, thanks to tremendous efforts from certain factions within the food lobby, now no longer means “zero,” at least when it comes to trans fats. We’ve also seen “global warming” morph into “climate change,” which seems rather like telling your dog that he’s getting “neutered” instead of “castrated.”
All of this blather is preface to my latest anger: the narrowed use of the word “terrorist,” a word Oxford defines as “anyone who attempts to further his [sic] views by a system of coercive intimidation,” but which popular American usage has redeployed to mean “any Muslim we’re afraid of.” It feels like a combination of mass hysteria (something we Americans are quite good at, at least if you judge by what we did to Japanese-Americans during WWII, for example) and calculated (if opportunistic) planning by those with that unique combination of power and prejudice that too often serves as the fuel on which our country runs.
Yet as we fall into our comfortable semantic sleep, real terrorism, Oxford-style terrorism, is all around us, and I think it’s time we called it out:
- Somewhere today there’s a new mother cradling an infant girl in her arms, wondering what she can do for the next year, where she can go, to keep her child safe. She worries that her neighbor’s children, or a child in the park where she pushes her stroller, or the school-age daughter of a cousin, may not be vaccinated. She lives in fear every day, ticking squares on a wall calendar, waiting for that first year to pass so she can get her child the protection she needs.
- Somewhere today a father and son are looking at toys in a big box store when around the end of the aisle three men appear, each with semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. The child gasps; the father moves in front of the boy to shield him, not knowing—and unable ever to know—whether this is the time when it’s not just a political statement but, instead, bullets will fly.
- Somewhere today a family farmer out west—one of a steadily shrinking minority—anxiously reads reports of expected drought, drought that presumes to linger for years. Meanwhile a midwestern mother wonders whether the schools her children attend are built to withstand the ever-increasing number of tornados, each seemingly more severe than the last. Further east a middle-aged and apparently healthy man in a Boston suburb collapses while shoveling more snow than the area has ever seen in a single month. All of this, so the overwhelming evidence shows, results from man-made global warming.
Tell me truly, each of you: do you have more to fear, personally, from religious extremists than you do from any of those who contribute to the scenes just described? And if not, then why are the latter “terrorists” and the former just “people?”
Yes, my words are harsh. But I sat with young friends recently who worried for the children they plan to have some day, who carry around with them an anxiety—a terror—that we are creating a world in which there are shadows around every corner, shadows that tell us to “be afraid.” And anyone willfully contributing to that fear, blindly claiming that they are only “raising the question” or “revealing the truth” or “having the debate” are terrorists, too, in every meaningful sense of the word. They daily terrorize millions and millions of people, attempting to further their views “by a system of coercive intimidation.”
What else would you call intentionally exposing newborns to deadly diseases, or walking into a K-Mart fully armed?
I imagine the responses even as I write. I’ll be accused of “false equivalency,” of “being an apologist,” of needing to “wake up.” But it isn’t and I’m not and I don’t. I’m well aware that the acts of those whom today we narrowly define as terrorists are abhorrent. It’s not that acknowledging them as terrorists is wrong. But acknowledging only them as terrorists is.
If you don’t vaccinate your child without sound scientific and medical reasons, you are a terrorist.
If you carry weapons without concern for how it frightens others, you are a terrorist.
If you actively promote denial of climate change, you are a terrorist.
It’s time to accept the true definition of the word, and label all who terrorize with it.
(And my list, I’m sure, is not exhaustive…. Any thoughts?)