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COLUMN: To combat terrorism, change its definition

As a student of English and comparative literature, I am acutely aware of the power words possess to influence the public and, consequently, of the difference choosing certain words over others can make.

Debates over diction are frequently dismissed as trivial obsessions with semantics, but we are now facing a moment in which the semantics of a given crisis or tragedy’s narrative control the response among members of the American public and those whom it has elected to represent them. 

Specifically, inadequate definitions of terrorism and refusal to label domestic terrorism as a federal crime are causing great harm to the American people. Changes in the semantic treatment of these issues would help spur critical legal advances. 

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock's case might be treated differently if the state of Nevada’s definition of terrorism was used to label him a domestic terrorist.

Richard Spencer and his white nationalists, who marched in Charlottesville again Saturday night, would be better impeded if we introduced a criminal statute for domestic terrorism and labeled it a federal crime in the same way we label international terrorism.

We cannot dismiss such considerations as speculative or unfounded when we know that interpretation of language affects and is indeed the very foundation of law. 

Proof abounds in every legal matter we face as a nation, but to stick to the subject of terrorism, we observe that the PATRIOT Act proved Americans were willing to compromise privacy rights as long as the sacrifice was phrased by former President Bush as being made in the name of “new tools to fight... a threat like no other nation has ever faced.” 

Or, to speak more broadly, remember the 2016 election season craze over echo chambers? We were consumed by raging concerns about the limitations that mismanaged communication places on our understanding of our individual and public realities. 

We seemed to have a national moment of reckoning about just how much weight our words carry. And yet here we are: lesson unlearned or, if learned, then sorely unapplied. 

A large part of the frustration while the narratives surrounding these recent events unfold, which themselves epitomize maddeningly persistent and systemic issues, is the way that we as a nation hold ourselves back by refusing to address something that is absolutely within our power to change. 

As former federal prosecutor Mary McCord stated to CBS News, a label such as domestic terrorism acts as a crucial catalyst for productive responses.

“It shows the significance of this type of a crime and why it's important for it to be looked at and treated for what it is, which is terrorism. It's an intent – it’s a crime done for the very purpose of terrorism," McCord said.

If you remain unconvinced, consider how narratives affect your own daily life. How do your actions toward a situation change when you or someone you trust frames it not as an inevitability you must accept but as a problem you can fix? 

The problem with our treatment of domestic terrorism is unquestionably one that we can fix, and a wise first step to remedy the issue would be to change the way we talk about it. 


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