Le Mot « terrorisme »

This is the essential definition of terrorism:

Le terrorisme est l’usage de la violence envers des innocents à des fins politiques, religieuses ou idéologiques.

You probably don’t even need a translation: it’s the use of violence against innocents for political, religious or ideological purposes. Many add the important clarifying caveat “unlawful” violence and “intimidation”, so as to separate it from “lawful” violence and “lawful” intimidation. (A police officer pulling you over for speeding is an example of “lawful intimidation.”)

I note that definition from French Wikipedia because our English word “terrorism” today comes down to us from that French word. Its initial use was in revolutionary France in 1794 – during the worst of “la Terreur” (“the Terror”):

Le mot « terrorisme » est attesté pour la première fois en novembre 1794, il désigne alors la « doctrine des partisans de la Terreur », de ceux qui, quelque temps auparavant, avaient exercé le pouvoir en menant une lutte intense et violente contre les contre-révolutionnaires.

As you may know, I have spent a lot of time recently “in 1794.” What that above means is “terrorism” described believing it was appropriate to “terrify” any “counter-revolutionaires” into falling into line with the new revolutionary government. The means to do that included not just threats and imprisonment, but also politically-motivated murder – including by guillotining, shooting, and drowning.

[Artist unknown. Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

With no apparent motive yet established, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre some social media users and journalists have decided on their own that they don’t like confining the word “terrorism” to denote “la violence envers des innocents à des fins politiques, religieuses ou idéologiques.” And there are other claims as well. One example:

And as a California local Fox television reporter herself has tweeted (and has been going on about this similarly since this tweet):

Evidently, Nevada state law is also broad enough to describe the Las Vegas mass murders as “terrorism” already. Well, I didn’t know that before this mass shooting, and I don’t think most of us outside of that state did. For if it does, it should concern us.

As a novelist, I believe words and meanings do matter greatly. And it seems we are now being called upon to label all acts of mass violence in the public space as “terrorism”. Thus it will be defined not only as, say, a man who detonates a truck bomb outside a U.S. government building in Oklahoma City claiming it was revenge against the government for its actions at Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and those who crash hijacked passenger aircraft suicidally into New York skyscrapers due to their group’s opposition to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (among a laundry list of other reasons); it must also include the likes of horrors such as a troubled 20 year old man who shoots his mother four times and later opens fire on staff and pupils in a nearby elementary school for no political/ religious/ ideological reason(s)/demand(s) we can discern whatsoever.

Yet if we do that, we have just hollowed out the word “terrorism” and made it nearly useless as a descriptive term. However, is that the hope and the goal perhaps? To bland it out and water it down and even curtail its use?

Regardless, there is no escape. If not that word, we will simply have to invent a new one. Because there will always be a need to describe “la violence envers des innocents à des fins politiques, religieuses ou idéologiques.”