Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Danger From The Right Side Of The Brain

David Rothkopf puts into perspective the bombings at the Boston Marathon as he writes

Reading the tweets and the first stories, hearing of ground stoppages at airports and security moves at the White House, it was all too easy to remember the mood in the wake of 9/11, a moment in history when justified horror fed panic. But this was translated into a crackdown on civil liberties, an unnecessary war — and some very dark days for the United States.

Tragedies like these call for swift response from police and emergency workers, not to mention Homeland Security officials. But experience tells us that the ultimate accessories to the terrorist are the innocent and well-intentioned who spread and exaggerate the terror. Just as we should track down perpetrators, we should also remember that if we remain calm and rational, we can minimize the effectiveness of these acts and in so doing make them less attractive for terrorists to undertake.

This is how people in countries plagued with violence, like Israel, have long handled attacks. Be resolute about security, intelligence and enforcement. But place equal emphasis on maintaining order and ensuring the minimum possible disruption of daily life.

With more than 100 casualties reported at the time of this writing, it is easy to let anguish fuel anger and worse. Sadly, we have been here before.

The Associated Press struck a blow for calm when on April 4 revised in its stylebook the use of the term "Islamism" to mean

An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi. 

The change has been derided by critics as "political correctness," conservative shorthand for "what we on the right don't like."   Although the AP two days earlier unwisely had announced a decision to eliminate the term "illegal immigrant," using "Islamist" more judiciously was not an effort to eliminate an idiom, but rather to use it correctly.
Like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (which has its own, unfortunate agenda), the Associated Press may be repulsed by the almost exclusively pejorative context in which the term is used.  However, it might- and probably should- refer only to individuals with such a stubborn or extreme attachment to the Muslim faith that he/she believes it ought to be the basis of a government or society.  An "ism" is "a distinctive, doctrine, system, or theory";   it is not a synonym for militancy, violence, or terrorism.

"Terrorism" itself is a legitimate and valuable term, unlike its companion "terror," often treated as a derivative of the former.   "Terror" has been in existence, both as a concept and word, since the beginning of human, and probably even animal, existence.  Until squeamishness at use of the use of the term "terrorism," "terror" was understood as a generic term denoting fright.   The first- and proper- definition of "terror" is "a state of intense fear," which all of us, unfortunately, experience periodically.  One wonders:  when the word "terror" is used, as in frequent headlines today, is it used as a synonym for "terrorism," even though the origin of the bombings in Boston has not been definitively determined?  Or is it meant to evoke a sense of fright, an all-too-common human affliction?

You may know the answer to that question while your neighbor, reading the same headline, may have quite another.  And that is another similarity to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which featured manipulation of the language conservatives rarely if ever decried.  Typically,  mainstream media and supporters of the Bush Administration (but I repeat myself), less often opponents of administration policy, referred to "weapons of mass destruction."  Usually, this was meant to evoke thoughts of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, though only the latter is truly a weapon of "mass destruction." By contrast, at times the reference was (more properly, but still confusingly) solely to nuclear weapons.

Words have meaning, and obfuscation is the enemy of good grammar and clear thinking. In times such as this, distortion of the language can engender fear and panic and help set the stage for bad policy.

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