Is usage of the word ‘terrorist’ racist?

A terrorist is a person who deliberately targets non-combatants of some group seen as “the enemy”. The aim is not to kill as many of them as possible, but rather to instil fear in others who belong to the hated group. Terrorists hope the fear they can generate in other members of the hated group will make them modify their political behaviour, in effect changing their way of thinking about a political issue. The aim of the violence is pour encourager les autres in the hope of bringing a political goal closer.

A bomb planted in a pub may “pointlessly” kill 10 innocent drinkers, but its real purpose is to bring 1000 useful idiots round to the terrorists’ way of thinking. The idea is to get them to have thoughts like these: “The people who did this must be very angry; their anger must be the result of having a serious grievance; intellectuals like us must do what we can to peacefully redress that grievance.” And so on.

Because the goal is political, and because the violence is aimed at changing the thinking of quite large numbers of people, we also normally think of terrorists as being organised, at least to the extent of belonging to a recognised group who share a political goal.

It’s often said that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”, and there’s some truth to that. The creation of new states often involves acts of great brutality and the more or less deliberate targeting of civilians. But it’s also often said that we tend to classify people who have dark skin as “terrorists”, and exonerate (if that’s the word) light-skinned people as merely “mentally disturbed”. I think that’s unfair, and that most ordinary users of English do in fact use the word ‘terrorist’ reasonably consistently.

Killing is serious. Most of us never kill anyone, certainly not on purpose. Few of us think anyone is guilty of any fault so bad that they “deserve to die”. To kill people known to be innocent of such faults is a very disturbed thing to do. It requires the suspension of everyday judgement that assumes individuals are to blame for what they themselves do, and instead replace it with “assumed blame” of simply belonging to a group. Because such groups often have an identifiable ethnicity, terrorism is akin to extreme forms of racism, such as Ku Klux Klan lynchings of black people simply because they are black. I think we have to accept that people who engage in indiscriminate violence like this, who dress up in identity-hiding costumes intended to frighten, and all the rest of it, must indeed be mentally disturbed.

Of course the converse is not true. But the connection between mental disturbance and terrorism is firm enough for us to confuse them. Do we systematically apply labels in such a way that we are guilty of the very racism I’ve just suggested terrorism amounts to? — I don’t think so. In recent decades, most sensible people unhesitatingly described the Provisional IRA as “terrorists”, despite the pallor of their skin. Those that didn’t so describe them were not motivated by a racist urge to exonerate white skin, but by political sympathy for the Provisional IRA. In many cases that sympathy was the intended result of IRA violence. The same applies to the UDA and other equally white organisations we unambiguously label “terrorist”.

I think what really matters here is degree of organisation. We are unlikely to call a lone gunman who goes apeshit in a gay club a “terrorist” if he does not belong to an organised gay-killing group, no matter what the colour of his skin may be. We are unlikely to call a lone attacker who kills an MP a “terrorist” either, for similar reasons. But a group of people who are sufficiently organised to plan an attack in advance, to coordinate things among themselves, to arrange transportation, weaponry, and so on: these are surely a “terrorists”. And we classify them as such because of their methods, political aims and degree of organisation rather than because of the colour of their skin.

If the word ‘terrorist’ is nowadays more commonly applied to dark-skinned people than before, that is probably because in recent decades fewer terrorists have been descended from people of Northern latitudes. It was not always so.

The urge to blame people targeted by terrorists (by accusing them of racism) instead of terrorists themselves is of course one of the intended results of terrorism.

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