Thursday, September 18, 2014

18-Sep-14: Is it activism when they say they need to behead you?

Once, in a more innocent era, beheading was
dismissed as just a word. Placard-carrying
youth at a Sydney Moslem protest, 2012
[Image Source]
It's right and appropriate that Australia's ABC use the word terror in connection with today's reporting of the country's largest counter-terror activity in history. But for how long?

When Islamist sociopaths in the Sydney 'burbs threaten to murder and/or behead Australians, that's terror, and the people doing it are terrorists. But when they or their cousins in their Middle East villages threaten the very same to Israelis or to Arabs who pray in a different direction or whose view of their shared religion is different in some big or small way, why are they then called militants or activists?

The head of Reuters in the days right after 9/11 said the reason is "that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" [Sydney Morning Herald, 2004]. But we, and that includes the media, have to get this right. There is a way to know terror, to define terror, to classify certain actions and people as terrorist. Getting this wrong has huge life-and-death consequences. The senior people at the BBC don't agree, and say instead that using the word "terrorist" "can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding":
...we don't change the word "terrorist" when quoting other people, but we try to avoid the word ourselves; not because we are morally neutral towards terrorism, nor because we have any sympathy for the perpetrators of the inhuman atrocities which all too often we have to report, but because terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones. [BBC: Language when Reporting Terrorism]
That's one of the reasons people who think the way we do have for years tried to publicly shame the BBC's policy guidelines [full text online here] on how and when to use "terror".

If Australian news reports this evening referred to the people who threaten to behead other Australians by calling them militants or activists, most members of their Australian audience would be outraged.

But as Israelis, we have gotten used to the reality of reporters and their editors engaging in walking-on-eggshells terminological acrobatics in order to disgracefully avoid using the one accurate descriptor: terrorist.  
Same protest, same Sydney public park, even
 supporter of beheading for the sake
of Islam [Image Source]

A seminal article by Daniel Pipes in the New York Sun ten years ago surveyed the state of the euphemisms-for-terrorism art. His listing included activists (Pakistan Times).assailants (National Public Radio), attackers (Economist), bombers (The Guardian), commandos (Agence France-Presse which also called them "membres du commando"), criminals (Times of London)extremists (United Press International), fighters (Washington Post), group (The Australian), guerrillas (New York Post in an editorial), gunmen (Reuters), hostage-takers (Los Angeles Times), insurgents (a New York Times headline), kidnappers (The Observer), militants (Chicago Tribune), perpetrators (New York Times), radicals (BBC), rebels (Sydney Morning Herald), separatists (Christian Science Monitor), 

(A good thing suicide bomber is not on his list: if we had our way, no one would ever use that term. Those people are human bombs.)

A year ago, we wrote here about how

George Carlin, the great and late, joked that people once used to get old and die but not any more. Nowadays they become pre-elderly; then turn into senior citizens; then pass away in a terminal episode or following a negative patient care outcome or in response to a therapeutic misadventure. The world is poorer with him gone. But with the greatest of respect (non-euphemistically, that would be: recognizing the utter foolishness of what people routinely do), it's not at all humorous when the authorities hijack our language in order to advance policies which, if they had to explain them, would be offensive, repugnant and unacceptable.
The terrorists are a serious threat to just about everyone, and it's ludicrous to think "we" have "them" on the run. The terrorists can do immense harm, turn people's lives upside down, inflict huge pain and destruction. But unless we let them, they cannot change the shape of society. Those euphemisms and the fuzzy, agenda-driven thinking behind them, however, can do immense harm to the ability of civilized countries to keep their people and their achievements safe. What we do with words really does make a difference.

No comments: