The Semantics of Terrorism

The Semantics of Terrorism


During the fifth annual Al Jazeera forum on May 23, 2010, Robert Fisk gave an address, stressing the potency of semantics in the media (posted on, May 25, 2010). Fisk's remarks underlined the ways in which word-choices define and color media coverage and reporting, and, consequently, determine our readership’s perceptions of world affairs.

"Power and the media," he said, "…are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and state department and Pentagon…in the Western context, power and the media is about words—and the use of words...It is about semantics."

As usual, Fisk sheds light on a crucial but overlooked aspect of media reporting. Yet, surprisingly, he neglects to mention the one word whose calculated proliferation has led to the pandemic compromise of principled thought and humanistic action: that word is terrorism.

The use of the word terrorism (and its many derivatives: terrorist, Arab-terrorist, Muslim-terrorist, The War on Terror, anti-terrorism, etc.) in media has infiltrated our collective lexicon in a way that has wreaked havoc on nearly all aspects of international politics and touched (undermined, sabotaged, devastated) the ways in which millions of people interface with this planet, and with each other. Can we no longer hear ourselves speak? Or have we lost our ability to comprehend the words we are uttering?

Is it possible that this word is so pervasive and insidious that it has taken a place of validity even in the lexicon of perhaps the most prominent Middle East correspondent? As a Palestinian-American, and one of Robert Fisk's indebted readers, the omission sent me into a momentary panic. If he's not talking about the chicanery of terrorist discourse, then who is?

Well, of course Fisk is talking about it. He has been talking about it for years. In his book The Great War for Civilization (2005), for example, Fisk writes,

"'Terrorism' is a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason and moral permit for state-sponsored violence - our violence - which is now used on the innocent of the Middle East ever more outrageously and promiscuously…." (p. 378).

The collusive, worldwide usage of the word terrorism is what allowed the courts to sentence the men who became known as "The Holy Land Five" to prison terms ranging from fifteen to sixty-five years last May. Defense attorney Nancy Hollander explained on Democracy Now! (May 29th, 2009) that "…the [U.S.] government’s allegations, and what the jury found, was that Holy Land provided charity…mostly [to] orphans or families in need. The Holy Land Five…were not accused nor convicted of one single act of violence."

No violence committed. No intent to commit violence. No support for violence. Just the unfortunate circumstance of donating funds to an orphanage that, according to Hollander, "may or may not have been" affiliated with a so-called terrorist organization.

That terrorist organization, of course, was Hamas, the democratically-elected government that the only "true" democracy in the Middle East has committed relentless acts of violence, coercion, blockades, and, yes, murder, to thwart, using tactics that more closely resemble what has historically been defined as fascism: a tenet of which includes "the will and ability to commit violence and wage war in order to keep the nation strong."

The "true" democracy to which I am referring is Israel, and the willingness to go to any measure to protect the strength of a nation epitomizes the principles of the Israeli Defense Forces. The connotation of the word defense solidifies, over time, in the neural wiring of Israeli society and its international supporters. It sets up a mental construct in which the State of Israel is an entity that is under constant attack. By terrorists. Who, irrefutably, must be eradicated. Their actions are somewhat irrelevant. Whether they are school children, passing through checkpoints, or citizens from other countries bringing medicine and food to Gaza, Israel will garner an astonishing degree of unconditional national and international support for harming them if they call them terrorists.

Semantics, syntax, and lexicon are central to me in my work as a speech-language pathologist. It is my life's work to help my patients develop (or restore) their ability to communicate. Word specificity, as well as an ability to interpret unuttered but intentional communication, are paramount in helping my patients communicate.

In my clinical practice in San Francisco, I was working with a patient recently, a man who happened to be a white American Jew. He asked me about my "ethnic origins." When I told him I was born in Palestine, he said, "Are you Muslim?" I responded that I am, to which he said,

"Wow. So, you could be a terrorist."

"So could you," I said.

Terrorist, at this moment in history, is usually short-hand for some type of "Arab" or "Muslim." An Arab or a Muslim (or, any of their supporters) who has taken action against The State. Or even one who hasn’t. Through interminable repetition and wide-spread use, Arab, Muslim, and terrorist are no longer extractable from one another; they have, in effect, become synonymous. The use of one instantly brings up the mental image of the other. In airports, when people who do not fit the stereotype of Arabs or Muslims are pulled aside for random security checks, I've heard them mutter, "Do I look like a terrorist?"

Interestingly, a search through the news archives regarding pre-State Israel reveals that the word terrorist formerly referred to Jews. An article from the New York Times (August 16, 1947) reported, "United States authorities believed they had circumstantial evidence linking the bombing of a British military train…to the Zionist terrorist organization Irgun…" Another New York Times article (December 30, 1947) stated, "A bomb thrown by the Jewish terrorist organization Irgun…killed eleven Arabs and two British policemen…" And in 1946, The Times, London, "branded the Irgun 'terrorists in disguise'" (referenced in Times Online, July 20, 2006). The terrorist organization Irgun later became part of the Israeli Defense Forces. The Irgun was also a political predecessor of Herut, which eventually evolved into Israel’s right-wing Likud party.

A flip of semantics, supported by print media, radio, and television, shifted the definition of the terrorist from Jew to Palestinian/Arab/Muslim, through persistence, insistence, and time. It stands to reason that a similar campaign could switch it back. With a bit of linguistic re-programming, the Palestinians' rightful actions to protect themselves and their homeland could be accurately reflected in the media, liberating mainstream thought and obliterating collective delusions. Similarly, more thoughtful use of descriptive vocabulary could construct a mental schema for what the Israeli military really is: "a body of persons resorting in its activities to acts of violence calculated to cause death or injury to a person, or to threats of such acts of violence…" (which, by the way, is Israel's definition of  terrorism, as stated in The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs' "Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance.")

There is strategy to this verbal warfare. These are not merely mistakes, habits, oversights. These words are designed to be elusive. Ambiguous. Slogans and clichés, by their nature easily-retrievable, are stored in a part of the brain that has little capacity for analysis or cognitive complexity, and, therefore, cannot be argued. Words that have been gutted of meaning—in print, in public speeches, spoken by experts or presumed authorities—allow people in power absolute license to define, and therefore overpower, whomever they wish to manipulate. Semantic confusion renders the recipient defenseless; if people can't understand what, precisely, is being said, they have no hope of rebuttal.

This is why individuals who have suffered from strokes often produce nonsensical jargon. It requires little cognition; the neural mapping is so deeply structured (to reference the early linguistic work of Noam Chomsky), that speakers continue to utter them even when they are contextually inappropriate. This is not so different from our politicians and reporters, who perpetuate a kind of universal morphology that, rather than liberating us, serves to imprison us.

Several years ago, I treated a politician whose wife wanted him to be evaluated for stuttering. His responses to all of my questions (name, date, time, place) came in the form of scripted campaign slogans, but his speech was completely fluent. I asked his wife if he'd had a neurology consult. She replied, "Oh, no; he's a politician. He's always talked like that." He died a few months later from an undiagnosed neurological disorder.

Words are meant to expand our connectedness with our environments. Language is stored and retrieved by virtue of a complex process of synaptic mapping—this is how we begin, as young children, to make sense of this world.

What, then, are people's minds making mappings of, making sense of, when journalists are spitting out hackneyed permutations of the word terror day after day?

Those of us who are able to sift through the redundancy of journalistic rhetoric (whether it is a result of malice, carelessness, or ignorance) cannot reconcile incongruent linguistic input with what our minds, in essence, know to be true. Our minds process this incongruence as confusion, which leaves us doubtful of reality, leading to a kind of paralysis. This is precisely why we see entire societies that appear vacant, complacent, and inert. Our task, then, as a society, is to match the word to the reality. To call violence violence. To call injustice injustice. To call people by their rightful names. So that we can begin to reconcile our own complicity in allowing Pirates and Emperors to rule our world.

Soha Al-Jurf is a Palestinian-American writer. She works as speech-language pathologist at the UCSF Voice and Swallowing Center in San Francisco. She can be reached at