Oregon, #YallQaeda, and the New Godwin's Law

For about 10 years, the American left rolled its eyes as the American right dropped the word "terrorism" on every somewhat-violent action it didn't like. 

But after a decade of over-exposure to the word, we haven't developed a true "crying wolf" reaction in which we all just snicker every time we hear it. Instead, who gets the "terrorist" label seems to be growing: incidents with any violence, threat of violence, show of force, etc, are being labeled as "terrorism" with increasing willy-nillyness. 

Something that's very different from the post 9/11 age is that it's no longer the government throwing the label around to the disgust of the social media world: the members of the Twitterverse have become the new inquisitors of who is-or-is-not a terrorist, and the rest of us are getting caught up in the hunt. 

Enter Oregon

So a militia with guns takes over a federal government building largely in reaction to federal land protection policy (and a few sub-issues wrapped up in that, like an arson charge for a guy named Hammond).

A massive social media reaction occurred in which a bunch of folks that oppose the takeover rushed to make sure these guys were labeled as terrorists, with such hashtags as "#YallQaeda" and "#YeeHawd."

(I must admit that the new hashtags "#YokelHaram" are pretty funny. Just have to get that out of the way before we move on.)

Such labels aren't just hyperbolic, they're quite clearly inaccurate. 

What Are They Committing, if Not Terrorism?

Doing a little bit of research on different laws in the US that describe crimes that involve using force against the government, probably the best definition is "sedition," though it may be "insurrection." 

One could presumably have an act that is seditious and also terrorism, or an insurrection that uses terrorism as part of its tactics.

But in this case, what the Oregonian militias are doing isn't what we'd consider terrorism. It's an armed insurrection against the federal government, but lacks both of the key elements of what makes a violent act terrorism (here's the FBI definition) rather than regular armed resistance of some sort:

1) They aren't killing people or destroying things (nor do they intend to), particularly of a civilian nature

2) Their intent is not to terrorize a population

If we include the Oregon occupation as a form of "terrorism," then we're stuck with a definition that covers just about every armed opposition to any government in history, including:

  • The American Revolution
  • The American Civil War (or pretty much every civil war ever)
  • The French Resistance

So I'm going to make the argument that calling this "terrorism" is quite inaccurate. "Sedition" and "armed insurrection" seem closer to the mark (if anyone has what they think might be a better name for this, let me know in comments). In this case, we're going so far as to compare these guys directly to ISIS and al-Qaeda--so not just your run-of-the-mill terrorists, but literally the  most evil organizations of our time! Our cooler selves would admit that such a comparison is absurd. 

Now, why is this semantic point important?

Why Does It Matter So Much That We Define This Correctly?

That is, "Erik, why do you care so much about who throws the word 'terrorism' around and about what incidents they apply it to?"

There are three problems with throwing around the word "terrorism" about everything one doesn't like (besides "being incorrect or inaccurate is generally not good"):

1) It actually makes it harder to win popular support for your side. If you've got some Americans--like myself--sitting here saying, "this just isn't terrorism," then you make it hard for these Americans to join your disapproval. Using a more accurate (and therefore less controversial) label for this (like "insurrection") is going to create less resistance to your efforts to build popular opposition. In short, calling these guys 'terrorists' or comparing them to al-Qaeda is so far off the mark that it costs you credibility in the eyes of people you might want to convince.

2) We exacerbate the Wedge in American politics when we use hyperbole and false binaries. Comparing these guys to al-Qaeda means we are claiming we believe that their behavior is comparable to murdering thousands of innocent civilians, or torturing people, systematic rape, and all the other stuff that al-Qaeda actually does. Perhaps al-Qaeda has at some point occupied a building, but that's like comparing all painters to Hitler because Hitler was a painter. Thus we have a new Godwin's law problem: just as saying someone is "like Hitler" totally obliterates a conversation, comparing someone to al-Qaeda does the same.

3) We empower politicians that want to manipulate us by doing this. By using the "terrorist" label on things we don't like, we legitimize when politicians do it. They can thereby use the label to whip up public support for armed action against whatever group they might want to use force against. It's something that dictatorships do every time they are facing some sort of resistance--Iran, Russia, China, Syria, and others all call their opposition "terrorists" to justify using deadly force against them. It sets a dangerous precedent and I believe we have a responsibility to avoid giving political leaders undue moral power to label whatever group they don't like as "terrorists." 

As we say in Wedged, having our fun and just calling these guys "terrorists" is emotionally satisfying (for those chomping at the bit to have a right-wing love-to-hate group) but ultimately counter-productive.

Can you oppose something--even something with guns--without calling it terrorism? Totally. I promise. You just have to decide whether you want to be politically effective or not.



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.