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
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.