In Other Words

The Name Game

Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, March 2005, London The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., appeared to cement a new consensus on the definition of terrorism. During the Cold War, the term was used as a weapon in the battle between East and West, but with the embedding of ...

Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, March 2005, London

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., appeared to cement a new consensus on the definition of terrorism. During the Cold War, the term was used as a weapon in the battle between East and West, but with the embedding of al Qaeda in the global public consciousness came a definition of terrorists as stateless religious extremists or ethnic separatists. This consensus may have resulted from the immediacy of the threat rather than knowledge of the direction from which it came, but at least there was a feeling that we knew what terrorism was.

The consensus, however, has proved short lived. The launch of America's global war on terrorism renewed the debate over whether terminology and language determine perceptions of adversaries and, consequently, public policy. The tendency to use labels to identify enemies and employ rhetoric to justify behavior and inspire support is exacerbated in times of conflict. Accordingly, concern that the "terrorism" label will be used to vilify opponents, legitimize repression, and fuel conflict has resurfaced.

Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, March 2005, London

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., appeared to cement a new consensus on the definition of terrorism. During the Cold War, the term was used as a weapon in the battle between East and West, but with the embedding of al Qaeda in the global public consciousness came a definition of terrorists as stateless religious extremists or ethnic separatists. This consensus may have resulted from the immediacy of the threat rather than knowledge of the direction from which it came, but at least there was a feeling that we knew what terrorism was.

The consensus, however, has proved short lived. The launch of America’s global war on terrorism renewed the debate over whether terminology and language determine perceptions of adversaries and, consequently, public policy. The tendency to use labels to identify enemies and employ rhetoric to justify behavior and inspire support is exacerbated in times of conflict. Accordingly, concern that the "terrorism" label will be used to vilify opponents, legitimize repression, and fuel conflict has resurfaced.

These worries anchor a special issue of the British journal Third World Quarterly on "The Politics of Naming," an ambitious project linking case studies of conflict in Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Central Asia, Russia, Algeria, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories, in addition to Hezbollah and al Qaeda. The central argument is that the strong mislabel the weak — usually by applying the negative stereotype of "terrorist" or "terrorist organization" — thus distorting the true meaning of such movements. In fact, from the viewpoint of this volume, no general categories are acceptable; all obscure the local realities of conflict.

These studies raise some important questions. Does language "construct" interests, or is it only a means of justifying them? The terrorist label may impede American understanding of Hezbollah, but it is unclear how much that understanding would improve if the term were not applied. How fixed are pejorative labels? In Sri Lanka, labeling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as terrorists may have made it harder for the government to negotiate a political settlement. But governments can change labels when it suits their interests. Labels may be more malleable than these studies assume. Further, does dehumanizing the enemy intensify violence? Interviews with Israeli army snipers show that it is not necessary to dehumanize the enemy in order to kill.

But an exclusive focus on the language of the "oppressor" neglects, ironically, the viewpoint of the oppressed. It is important to remember that weak parties also use negative labels and offer competing histories. For example, if we accept the claim by Mona Harb of the University of Beirut and Reinoud Leenders of the International Crisis Group that Hezbollah possesses an advanced understanding of the West, can we assume that the weak are somehow inherently less prone to distorting reality? This conclusion seems unlikely, especially considering the vehemence and exaggeration of much anti-American rhetoric today.

Oddly, the volume fails to consistently address the ways in which globalized communication allows the weak to convey their story to critical audiences much more dramatically than in any earlier time, although Brown University scholar James Der Derian raises the issue. Information flows are impossible to control, as the United States has discovered in its efforts to win people over in the Middle East. Another problem is the authors’ occasional dependence on jargon: The reader longs for plain language, especially when the subject is the power of words.

Martha Crenshaw is a senior fellow at Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute and a professor of political science by courtesy at Stanford.

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