State of Linguistic Exception: Terrorism

Another day, another mass shooting.  These words could be the opening to a dystopian novel but they are accurate when speaking of the most advanced, supposedly civilized, and prosperous nation in the world.  Are mass shootings compatible with civilization?  Does civilization necessitate mass shootings?  Such questions are interesting but secondary to one that came to me while reading reactions to the Sutherland Springs massacre.  In particular, I noticed many people upset that Devin Kelley—white man and church goer—was not labeled a terrorist by the government after murdering four percent of the small town in Texas.  Contrasting this response to the attack on a Manhattan bike path in which the driver of a large truck killed eight and was promptly labeled a terrorist, many rightly wondered about the severe difference in reactions.  White supremacy and Islamophobia certainly play prominent roles in any explanation, but I wish to look deeper into the meaning of terrorist, who controls this term, and argue that we should not be using it at all.

Terror and the related terms terrorism, terrorist, terrorize, and so forth all stem from the Latin root meaning “to frighten from” or” to frighten away,” from “to frighten badly.”  At its root, when we speak of terrorism we are speaking of fear.  And indeed, fear surrounds us.  We are afraid not only of mass shooting and suicide attacks, but of potential nuclear conflict, rising sea levels, loss of ecological diversity, oncoming food crises, and the list goes on.  Modern America is a pool of fear in which we swim every day.  Our bodies are pitted against one another is comparative conflict, our signs post-disaster read “you loot, we shoot.”  Fear is our god.  What are the hymnals of our worship?


The Oxford American Dictionary holds terrorism as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”  It holds terrorist as “a person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims.”  The key terms here are not violence and intimidation, as these are facets of everyday American life.  On the contrary, the key term is political aims.  Was Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign a terrorist campaign?  According to the dictionary, yes it was.  If we hold to this definition then we admit that we have a terrorist in the highest office of the land, and given our country’s history this seems rather apt.  But—generally speaking—we are unwilling to make this claim beyond someone as infantile and clownish as the current president.  The dictionary definition is inadequate for assessing our current situation regarding mass shootings.

The FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism differs radically from the dictionary, reading: “Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”  Immediately we note how the key term has broadened from “political aims” to “of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”  The focus is no longer the goal but instead the nature.  We are not judging people by their actions but by their beliefs.  We are now in the business of thought crimes.  Notice how we also weakened the verb clause from “the use of violence and intimidation” to those “that espouse extremist ideologies.”  It is unclear what qualifies as an ideology let alone extremist, and this is likely a purposefully vague position so as to allow for the widest net to be cast. 

Our last look at what we mean by the word terrorist will be through the US law.  U.S. Code Title 22 Chapter 38, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as: "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience".  This definition is far more interesting for our current endeavor because it is more precise on several fronts: the violence must be premeditated and politically-motivated; must be unleashed against noncombatants; the doer of the violence must be a “subnational group” or “clandestine agent;” and these facets are again qualified by purpose (“influencing an audience”).  Was Devin Kelley a terrorist according to the law?  We do know that he was a woman/child-beating, self-hating, living expression of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and toxic masculinity with access to war machines.  But according to the law it is hard to say whether he was a terrorist as we do not know if the attack was premeditated, politically-motivated, and whether he was part of a group or an agent of some sort.  What about Stephen Paddock who murdered fifty-eight people and injured hundreds in Las Vegas just a month ago?  Again, the intention of the shooter is and will likely remain unknown.  Thus, according to the law as written we cannot label these men terrorists.  And yet, our instinct is to claim that we were and are terrorized by their actions, so why can’t we say as much?  This question may seem simple.  After all, they were white men and are therefore privileged in their treatment as violent murderers, but our answer must go beyond.

What is the common thread between the three definitions?  I believe the answer is a state of exception.  In regards to the dictionary definition, we must ask: who defines “political aims?”  In regards to the FBI definition, we must ask: who defines “extremist ideologies?”  Finally, in regards to the law we must ask: who is exempt from this definition?  The answer to all three is the government.  The government defines what qualifies as political aims, what qualifies as extremist ideologies, and is itself exempt from terrorism as per the law.  Thus any time the government kills innocent civilians abroad or at home and does so for political motives, it cannot legally be labeled a terrorist act or entity.  The United States’ repeated overthrow of democratically elected governments abroad, assassinations of officials abroad and innocents at home, drone killings of civilians in hospitals and schools, all these cannot legally be labeled terrorist attacks.


This glaring fact means that every time we advocate labeling someone a terrorist we are further consolidating the linguistic hegemony of the powers at be.  After all, can we use a term freely when a distinct and dangerous institution is exempt from being defined as such?  It is true that socially and politically speaking the government possesses the legitimate use of force; this is why police can legally murder but you cannot.  On the other hand, the government is not supposed to possess the legitimate use of language and yet it has thoroughly colonized much of our casual discourse.  In effect, it exists in a state of linguistic exception. 

We must ask ourselves: what do we gain by labeling these men as terrorists?  Equal treatment under the law?  But as I have just explored, there is no equal treatment under the law as a whole institution (and the actors therein) is exempt from said law.  Furthermore, by advocating they be labeled as terrorists means we are tacitly advocating our treatment of so-called terrorists and this treatment is nothing short of torture and barbarism.  This in turn legitimizes torture and barbarism.  The only solution is to drop the term altogether.  It seems to me that in advocating a wider net for the term terrorist, we are merely reifying this state of exception within our discourse: we are aiding in our own imprisonment.