In the few venues which yesterday denounced as “Terrorism” the ongoing assassinations of Iranian scientists, there was intense backlash against the invocation of that term. That always happens whenever “Terrorism” is applied to acts likely undertaken by Israel, the U.S. or its allies — rather than its traditional use: violence by Muslims against the U.S. and its allies — because accusing Israel and/or the U.S. of Terrorism remains one of the greatest political taboos (even when the acts in question involve not only assassinations but also explosions which kill numerous victims whose identities could not have been known in advance). But the case of these scientist assassinations particularly highlights how meaningless and manipulated this term is.
The prime argument against calling these scientists killings “Terrorism” is that targeted killings — as opposed to indiscriminate ones — cannot qualify. After Andrew Sullivan wrote a post entitled “The Terrorism We Support” and rhetorically asked: “is not the group or nation responsible for the murder of civilians in another country terrorists?”, and then separately criticized the NYT for failing to describe these killings as Terrorism, numerous readers objected to the use of this term on the ground that a targeted killing cannot be Terrorism. Similarly, after I noted yesterday that Kevin Drum had denounced as “Terrorism” a right-wing blogger’s 2007 suggestion that Iran’s scientists be murdered and asked if he still applies that term to whoever is actually doing it now, he wrote a post (either coincidentally on his own or in response) strongly implying that this is Terrorism; thereafter, commenter after commenter at Mother Jones vehemently disagreed, on the same ground, with Drum’s suggestion that this is Terrorism (many agreed the term did apply). Meanwhile, Jason Pontin, the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Technology Review, actually claimed that my use of the term Terrorism to describe these scientist killings is “what turns sober, hardnosed people from the Left” (he’s apparently been elected the spokesman for “sober hardnosed people”turning away from the Left), and then proceeded to insist over and over that these are merely targeted killings, not Terrorism.
Part of the problem here is the pretense that Terrorism has some sort of fixed, definitive meaning. It does not. As Professor Remi Brulin has so exhaustively documented, the meaning of the term has constantly morphed depending upon the momentary interests of those nations (usually the U.S. and Israel) most aggressively wielding it. It’s a term of political propaganda, impoverished of any objective meaning, and thus susceptible to limitless manipulation. Even the formal definition incorporated into U.S. law is incredibly vague; one could debate forever without resolution whether targeted killings of scientists fall within its scope, and that’s by design. The less fixed the term is, the more flexibility there is in deciding what acts of violence are and are not included in its scope.
Read the full article at Salon.com.