Rant # 3, War of the Words; Islam and the "T" Word

The language of dialogue in the current global war of worldviews is so vague that any chance of peace is lost in a sea of meaningless words and overused catchphrases. To see a way to understanding between the West and Islam requires an attack on a dangerous vocabulary that we often throw at each other like so many unexploded mines waiting to reap their grizzly, unintended consequences. To win the peace, we must wage a war on words.

There are many words that need attention, but ones that stand out are the ubiquitous “terror”, “terrorism” and “terrorist”. No doubt to the great frustration of Muslims, these words increasingly evoke in the Western psyche a disturbing image of militants acting out in the name of Islam. The phrase “War on Terror” does not typically bring to mind images of “animal rights” activists blowing up abattoirs or Japanese cultists poisoning morning commuters. Since 9/11, terrorism has become almost synonymous with violence quite literally in the name of Allah.

The problem for me is that I am not 100% sure what these terrible “T” words mean. Given that it is now de rigueur for everyone on every side to label everyone else a terrorist, I might not be the only one realizing that the word is open to interpretation. Everyone seems to agree that terrorists are very bad. But what is a Terrorist?

Encarta online dictionary offers the following definition of “Terrorist”:

“Somebody using violence for political purposes: somebody who uses violence, especially bombing, kidnapping, and assassination, to intimidate.”

Pretty wide open definition, in my opinion.

“Terrorism” on Encarta comes up:

“Political violence: violence or the threat of violence, especially bombing, kidnapping, and assassination, carried out for political purposes.”

Wow, you could shoehorn a lot of stuff into that definition too.

It seems to me there’s got to be a clearer meaning spelled out somewhere for these super important words.

Consider the following very eloquent description of one particular terrorist:

“The famous terrorist had never in his life raised personally as much as his little finger against the social edifice. He was no man of action; he was not even an orator of torrential eloquence, sweeping the masses along in the rushing noise and foam of a great enthusiasm. With a more subtle intention, he took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt. The shadow of his evil gift clung to him yet like the smell of a deadly drug in an old vial of poison, emptied now, useless, ready to be thrown away upon the rubbish-heap of things that had served their time.”

Who, you might ask, is being described here? A senior al-Qu’eda operative, perhaps? In fact, the character described is a fictional anarchist named Karl Yundt from Joseph Conrad’’s strikingly relevant 1907 novel The Secret Agent, inspired by the actual 1894 bombing of the Greenwich Observatory in London. Conrad’’s fascinating story seeks to sound out the inner workings of a pathetic band of anarchists bent on hacking away at society’s underpinnings in hopes that they will crumble, making way for a new world order. Conrad’’s characters range from a hack ideologue that grew massively obese while incarcerated to a wizened and bitter old bomb maker ready to do himself for the evil Mr. Yundt. Conrad’’s insightful depiction of Yundt underscores the outrageous criminality of terrorism, which has little to do with any particular philosophy, cause or agenda. Rather, Yundt’’s “evil gift” was to motivate others to act out their “sinister impulses.”

If Conrad’’s Yundt is a kind of archetypal terrorist, then it may be useful to think of a terrorist as a leader and not a mere follower. In The Secret Agent, a bombing takes place that appears to be a suicide bombing but in fact the dead “bomber” was completely innocent. It’s as if Conrad wanted to underscore that the main culpability lies with the depravity of a relatively small number of evokers who justify terror as a legitimate outlet for “righteous anger, pity, and revolt.” Would Bin Laden fit this profile? He himself was no impoverished soul, nor does it appear he personally carries out any terror acts. He is an evoker, and a good one at that.

The relevant point I believe is that in Conrad’’s analysis, what drives a terrorist has nothing to do with any particular set of doctrines or creeds, religious, political, or otherwise. In this light, it becomes clear that Islam itself has nothing to do with Terrorism. Rather, because there is a great deal of angst in the Islamic world, people with the Terrorist pathology raised in that culture are simply more successful, due to shear numbers of persons to evoke.

The forgoing is not meant to suggest I have defined these words with any precision, and I’’m sure many books have been written on the subject that make my comments trivial by comparison. Consider my views to be just that, the attempt of one person to put in some perspective the concepts and rhetoric that pervades our daily lives and thoughts. I hope that if you have any comments you will add them to this discussion.


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3 Responses to Rant # 3, War of the Words; Islam and the "T" Word

  1. scottage says:

    Hello David,

    I enjoyed your post. I have some other definitions of Terror, and I think what distinguishes them are the focus on the fear factor being inspired by terrorist groups. In many ways, it’s the fear inspired that is so dangerous, because it gradually erodes at the fabric of our day to day lives. Additionally, while the attack is done in x minutes, the fear continues, and becomes a natural aspect of our community.

    I’m doing a week-long examination of terrorism, and would like to include your post. If you have any objection, feel free to post it here (I’ll check before going live) or email me. Otherwise, I appreciate your insights, and look forward to reading more from you in the future.


    • dbrett says:

      Thank you Scottage for the feedback. No problem including my post in your review.

      I agree with your the lasting nature of the “fear factor” resulting from terror acts. I have asked myself on occasion if it would be useful for media to stop broadcasting images of terrorist acts, as the images invoke fear. In a sense, the grizzly images are the terrorist best weapon.

      Best Regards,


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