Last month, yours truly, with the help of commenters (and in a supplemental post found here), shredded the idea proposed in a column at Slate.com that journalists should eliminate the words "terrorist" and, by extension, "terrorism," to describe genuine acts of terrorism committed by terrorists (unless those words are uttered in quoted remarks by interview subjects). Sadly, in the course of covering the topic, I learned that that the Newspeak practitioners pretending to be journalists at Reuters have already done this in association "with specific events."
Now Philip Mudd, who "comments on counterterrorism and security policy for CNN" and is a former “deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center,” wants to travel part of the way down that road. Mudd wants to effectively eliminate the T-words when describing "seemingly random attacks with debatable motivations," while continuing their use for "politically motivated Islamist revolutionaries" such as "Osama bin Laden."
Anyone who understands radical Islam should know that in the vast majority of instances, this is an attempted distinction without a meaningful difference.
Adam Ragusea, the aforementioned Slate columnist, wants all journalists to avoid the terms because they have "acquired a powerful religious—and specifically Islamic—connotation” that “is substantively consequential."
Well of course they have, because radical Islamists have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in the past quarter-century. As I wrote at the time, "There’s such an overwhelming chance that a given (terrorist) attack is rooted in radical Islam that the average person logically starts with that tentative assumption, and needs to see evidence that it wasn’t to believe otherwise." Eliminating the T-words from non-quoted material in news reports would lead to an Orwellian marginalizing of the T-words entirely, and would eventually cause anyone who dares to use those words in any context to be ostracized or labeled a bigot.
When terror isn't terrorism
Terrorism isn't just an act of violence -- it's a political statement, the politically motivated killing of innocents. In the early years after the 9/11 attacks, declaring al Qaeda attacks incidents of terror seemed straightforward: Al Qaeda leadership selected targets and trained or inspired followers who took direction or guidance. And responsibility was clear since they generally claimed the attacks they conducted and rarely claimed attacks they did not.
Today, individuals or small groups trying to validate their attacks by claiming allegiance to ISIS seem like the next terror phase, with ISIS advocating attacks but neither directing nor even contacting attackers: In France and other European countries, and the United States, from a national day of celebration in Nice to a gay club in Orlando to an office party in San Bernardino.
Slow down. What appears to be an evolution in terror, from centralized operations directed by a core group of terrorists to a far-flung, loosely knit ideological movement inspired by ISIS from afar, masks a bigger question: Is what we are seeing even terrorism at all?
... al Qaeda of the past practiced controlled violence. By contrast, the ISIS of the present is more violent, less controlled, less selective about recruits, and less interested in whether the attacker adheres to its ideology.
Al Qaeda had a stricter leadership structure and logic -- and tied the attacks they committed to a longer term strategy. Targets could be justified, even if by their own interpretation of Islam, and they had to adhere to a certain code of terrorist conduct. ISIS has no such limitation and no such code. ALL violence conducted by it, in its name, or against a common enemy is acceptable, welcome. Embraced.
Terrorist attacks are now being conducted without specific direction.
ISIS can now say: "People who accept our radical view of Islam don't need direction from us. They know what they need to do. They can strike any infidel target at any time with little or no warning. If you were afraid before, you should really be afraid now."
The randomness and unpredictability makes ISIS's terrorist "political statement" stronger than al Qaeda's ever was. It's stunning that Mudd doesn't grasp this, or won't admit that he does in the name of language suppression.
Now, years into the ISIS onslaught, we have yet another generation of murderers seen as the next iteration of this threat.
Well sir, as noted, that's because they are.
And now we get to the impact of Mudd's attempted distinction on media reporting:
There are two reasons we should move away from this blurring of the line between today's terror -- seemingly random attacks with debatable motivations -- and yesterday's terrorism, perpetrated by politically motivated Islamist revolutionaries, starting with Osama bin Laden.
First, it's incorrect. ISIS has become, for some murderers, an excuse, a validation, a justification for carrying out acts of violence that are motivated by an individual's hate but sometimes not by what we have come to know as terrorism, the use of violence against innocents for a political purpose.
... Second, for those inspired or directed by ISIS -- and for its core leadership -- there is an honor in terrorism, the use of these attacks to counter vastly superior adversaries in Europe, the Middle East, North America and elsewhere. There is, however, no excuse for random murder among true terrorists. By granting ISIS a claim over these attackers, we elevate murder to what they want: a sign that their message of a new caliphate age, driven by ISIS, is gaining traction. (Well, that's because it is. — Ed.)
This immediate characterization of this new phase of attackers as "terrorists," despite their clearly muddled motivations, vaults a mass murderer who cannot validate killing into the realm of a politically motivated jihadist who is embraced by a fringe group that sees his act as justified.
Mudd does not want to characterize as "terrorism" by "terrorists" what makes the Nice, Orlando and San Bernardino attacks especially terrifying: The people involved in these attacks all clearly stated or otherwise indicated that they were inspired by ISIS and killed a combined total of almost 150 people, even though they appear to have had no meaningful direct contact with ISIS leadership.
This outlook expressed by Mudd, a former security official, gives the press further permission, as if they need it, not to cite such attackers as "terrorists" who have committed "terrorism." "Mudd's rules" say in effect that if you can't prove any direct contact, then, journalists can continue their annoying insistence that such attacks had "debatable motivations," "muddled motivations," or "unknown motivations" — even though we know darned well what motivated them.
Is it possible down the road that someone who could care less about radical Islam will falsely use allegiance to ISIS to "justify" unrelated murders or mayhem? Well yes, but there's no reason to believe that we've seen it happen, and it seems unlikely to happen more than very rarely. Assuming that the perpetrator wishes to continue to live (which many do, including those involved in the three attacks Mudd identified, until they either face the enormity of what they have done after the fact or are taken out by law enforcement), the idea of doing so seems like a losing proposition, given that someone who claims he or she committed murder in support of terrorism will get far less sympathy from the legal system than a murderer with other motivations.
The fundamental point is that you don't need direct instructions from ISIS or other radical Islamists to commit a radical Islam-inspired attack. Anyone who does that is a terrorist committing an act of terrorism. This should not be difficult to understand — or report.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.