When I was a young student my father told me a story from his college days. He was a freshman at Temple University and his professor asked for the definition of the word “progress.” Prepared for class, my dad answered, only to be told he was wrong.
Dad objected, saying he had consulted several dictionaries. The professor said, “Young man, I’ve written dictionaries.” It was an important lesson about what words mean and who gets to decide.
Today, American society is locked in such a battle regarding the word terrorism. For several decades the word seemed to have a clear meaning. It involved acts of violence in support of a political agenda. More than that, it required that a group of people who objected to that agenda would be targeted and terrorized. The most obvious example has been Islamic terror, and the killing of innocents in support of its ends.
But in the wake of recent mass shootings by white men such as Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas, progressives have demanded that these incidents also be regarded as terrorism. They see the failure to label them as such as an example of white privilege. Often, as is the case in the recent massacre in Las Vegas, this demand is made before any facts are known about the motive for the shooting.
Yes, It’s Another Race Thing
All of this started out a few years ago as a way to show that people of color carry a racial baggage of representation that white people don’t. When an Arab person commits an act of terror it implicates all Arabs, but white terrorists do not represent all white people. That’s actually a reasonable point. But very quickly, the point started changing.
Now, calling out white people as the a priori and essential problem has become par for the course. This is no longer being used an example of why blaming a whole group for the action of an individual is wrong, it’s being used as the opposite. Now, we should all think this way: race should be the alpha and the omega of how we react to acts of violence.
Note what Shaun King has to say in The Intercept about how white privilege affects our conversation about terrorism, and in his opinion, leads to terrorism: “It also prevents our nation from having an honest conversation about why so many white men do what he did, and why this nation seems absolutely determined to do next to nothing about it.”
Let’s unpack this statement. The basic argument here is that American society teaches white men they deserve to get anything they want. If these white men don’t get what they want, they might shoot someplace up. The problem with this assessment is that tens of millions of white men who don’t get what they want somehow manage not to commit mass murder.
Let’s Define Terrorism
So who is a terrorist? How do we fill this dictionary entry? Here is what I believe progressives mean when they call any white man who commits a mass shooting a terrorist. When we talk about terrorists, we talk about networks. Was the individual connected to a terrorist network? The network in question for white men who commit mass shootings is American society. The argument is that American society is and always has been a terrorist white supremacist enterprise.
This is a vision of America that defies even the slightest scrutiny. This is a nation that has embraced diversity as few if any other nations ever have. We have not been immune to terror, even homegrown terror. The lynchings of the Klu Klux Klan are a permanent stain on our nation’s history. But they are that, a stain, a small mark on the greater fabric of a society that has made real the wildest dreams of freedom and inclusion.
The Left likes to claim that we only call people of color terrorists. This would come as a surprise to the very white people in the Irish Republican Army, who were regularly referred to as terrorists by our politicians and mass media. No, the mantle of terrorist has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or religion. Terror is an attempt to influence a political process by threatening the people involved. Or it is at the very least an attempt to target individuals on the basis of their identity.
We Need to Know What Terrorism Is
Words matter. This word matters more than most. Terrorism is a thing we allow ourselves to fight without paying too much attention to the rules. So we better know what it is. We better know what we are giving ourselves authority to fight. Punch a Nazi? Stop a campus speech? Tear down a statue? How do you fight terrorism and know it when you see it?
We don’t know why Stephen Paddock did what he did. We might never know. But what we cannot do is allow ourselves to believe, as King apparently does, that his actions were the result of the freedoms that Americans demand for themselves.
Words mean things. But, we decide what they mean. Terrorism is a big one. What do we want it to mean? What are the implications? Who decides? I always remembered that story my dad told me, because it’s basically the most important story. What is a word? It’s what we decide it is. Let’s make a good decision.