What Does the Name “Terrorist” Tell Us About Ourselves?

What should we call terrorists, some of whom claim to be motivated by their religion? Can one be an Islamic … Continued

What should we call terrorists, some of whom claim to be motivated by their religion? Can one be an Islamic terrorist? What about a Christian terrorist? Does what we call terrorists matter?

About the time of the Russian Revolution, the Japanese author Takuboku Ishikawa wrote the following short poem:

what always seemed
a little remote from me
the forlorn
anguish of a terrorist
draws close to me of late

(tr. Makoto Ueda)

It is a poem that echoes the sentiments of people the world over when faced with intolerable situations. They don’t necessarily wish to embrace terrorism as a vocation, but increasingly they are able to understand the kind of desperation that a terrorist might feel.

In America today, the word “terrorist” evokes few empathetic feelings, though perhaps more of late. Rather, the word is a little like a bomb. In America, there are some who like to throw that bomb all about. Others prefer to stay as far away from it as possible. The ones who hurl it are of two varieties. There are those who are genuinely traumatized by the thought of random, unpredictable acts of violence, and those who see that word-bomb as an opportunity to inspire fear in those around them.

The traumatized are “true believers” who feel that, in battling terrorism (or at least evoking its spectre), they are defending their way of life. The opportunists are politicians and C.E.O.s, bankers, investors, and manufacturers who benefit from war. In some cases, they even include religious leaders. These see terrorism as an opportunity to consolidate their influence and power by uniting America against a common foe. The believer is afraid of terrorism. The opportunist is glad of it–glad, specifically, that the believers are all scared. Curiously, they are in sympathy with the terrorists to the degree that their goal of terror is the same. But both the believer and the opportunist argue that the word primarily means something about the people it is hurled at, even though the opposite is more true. For the names we call others are always self-revealing. After all, “terrorist” is our word for them, not their word for themselves.

What does the name “terrorist” tell us about ourselves? Like most good questions, this one is extremely hard to arrive at, for the simple reason that the resistance to asking it is so great. Nevertheless, once we get at it, the answer isn’t hard to find.

The word “terrorism” tells us that we are afraid. Most of us are already viscerally aware of this, even if our intellects are lagging a bit behind. There are serious, significant problems in American society today. And there are worse, maybe fatal problems looming on the horizon. The poor are getting poorer, the rich richer. Corporations rule every sphere of human endeavor without conscience or accountability. And if the economic and ecological unsustainabilty of our way of life needed a symbol, we now have it with the oil spill in the Gulf. The genie of capitalism is now officially out of the bottle, and the stopper, if there ever was one, has been lost. No wonder we’re afraid.

A certain “forlorn anguish,” which seemed remote from our way of life in the latter half of the twentieth century, gets closer every day. What to do about it? We can start by recognizing who we’re really afraid of. Once we’ve done this, the problem we call “Islamic terrorism” (rightly or not) will become the size it really is. At that point it will no longer inspire quite so much terror. For the present, we make it bigger than our other problems so we don’t have to face up to them. And the problem with that, of course, is that when we ignore our real problems, they get bigger and more terrifying. Which means the real terror is still to come.

About

  • twforg

    “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and War is the terrorism of the rich.” — Sir Peter Ustinov

  • faith-on-space-ship-earth

    ………. .

  • PSolus

    “About the time of the Russian Revolution, the Japanese author Takuboku Ishikawa wrote the following short poem:”What you probably meant to write is: “About the time of the Russian Revolution, the Japanese author Takuboku Ishikawa wrote a short poem in his native language, which has been translated into English, by one particular person, as the following:”

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.