Sunday, December 6, 2015

Killers By Any Other Name

Stephen Castle in the Times.
A knife attack in a London subway station on Saturday was being treated as a “terrorist incident,” the police said after they arrested a 29-year-old man suspected of the assault.
A 56-year-old victim sustained serious, but nonlife-threatening injuries, and two others were wounded less seriously at the Leytonstone station in East London. The suspect was detained after officers used a Taser on him.
An ugly story.  A horrible thing.  "Absolutely shocking," said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition.  The only good news is that nobody died.  Still.
“I would urge the public to remain calm, but alert and vigilant,” Cmdr. Richard Walton, who leads the Counter Terrorism Command of London’s Metropolitan Police, said in a statement. “The threat from terrorism remains at severe, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely.”
Of course.  It's Britain.  The Blitz.  The IRA.  Stiff upper lip.  Keep calm and carry on.  But it's terrorism, so if you see something, say something.  (Not just our side of the pond.)

Wait, I'm already getting sidetracked.  It's that first line of the story that caught my eye, the part about how it's "being treated as a 'terrorist incident."

We know about that.  It's how the FBI is investigating the killing of 14 in San Bernadino.  And of course there were the 3 at Planned Parenthood in Colorado and the 9 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

All of which were terrorism.  Or not.  

We wade into this linguistic thicket on a regular basis, it seems.  Whenever the body count mounts. 
This time Greenfield's insisting that words have meaning, that terrorism untethered to any single meaning is just whatever feels (as distinct from feelz, I think, though I'm not sure just what the difference is).  And so he insists on statute.
And this is why the definition is best grounded in statute. That humanities academics enjoy arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin elucidate nothing. If we’re to use words, there must be a common definition. Adding the word “terrorism” either means something or it’s just another word designed to create hysteria.
Over at Fault Lines, Noel Erinjeri too turned to statutory definition while insisting that names don't matter but that if he's guilty He damn well oughta get LWOP.
But what we call him isn’t important. What’s important is that he be prosecuted according to the due process of law. And, if he’s convicted of first degree-murder, that we lock him up and throw away the key.
I've dropped in on the question, too.  After the shooting in Charleston, for instance, where I quoted what Greenfield had to say at the time.
DOJ is trying to determine whether it was a hate crime or terrorism. Presumably, that's so that they can prosecute the bad guy if South Carolina decides to give him a medal. And folks across the spectrum are arguing about which of those it should be called.
As if it mattered.
Scott Greenfield:
Murdering people is offensive. Murdering people because of their race is offensive. What you call it is irrelevant. When you understand that, the debate over whether to call it terrorism begins to look a lot more ridiculous, narcissistic and offensive.
Which is of course true. Kinda. 
The thing is not so much that we've all been mostly wrong in what we've written (though arguably we have) but that we've been missing the point.

Oh, we've all started from the premise (explicitly stated or otherwise) that words matter.  The Greek word, logos (λόγος), after all, is the root of logic.  

More, the word calls forth the thing.  God, you'll recall, named the world into existence (Genesis 1:3). 
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
In fact, God was the word (John 1:1)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Indeed.  We were right.  Words matter.

And while it's common and mostly proper to insist that those words have meaning on which we can all agree,* that's for purposes of advancing actual thought.  If it's important for a specific reason to know whether something is an act of terrorism (because of a potential legal consequence, say), then obviously it's important to have a definition as a referent.  But mostly that's irrelevant.

It doesn't matter, for purposes of any available legal consequence, for instance, whether Tafsheen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were terrorists.  They're dead.  We don't try dead people in our courts.  We don't sentence them.  We don't hang their bodies at the edge of the city to deter other would-be whatevers.**

But there are other sorts of consequences to terrorism than the legal ones.  For those, imposing definitions is trickier.  They're the emotional and political consequences.

Terrorism is what justified Barefoot Scope 'n' Grope by TSA at the airport.  And keeps us docile enough to accept it.

Terrorism is what allows governors to declare that Syrian refugees can't be allowed to cross their state borders and Presidential candidates to vie with each other in demanding that they be turned away before they even reach the nations.  (Let the little kids drown since they'll surely either be carrying bombs or will grow up to make and plant them.)  

Manchurian Candidates every one.

It's important, for whipping up frenzy and justifying the metaphorical ovens that there be no definition.  If there's a definition of terrorism, then it's harder for the demagogues to do their demagoguing.  Absent a definition, it's a free for all.

And of course there's the pure feeling.  

If it's an act of terrorism, we should all be scared.  If it's just garden-variety psychopaths or pissed off folks, no need to worry.  

After all, if they were terrorists, they showed that terrorists can strike anywhere - even the Inland Regional Center in San Bernadino.  So nobody is safe and everyone should be scared. 

If they weren't terrorists, then it's just ordinary crime that can occur anywhere - even the Inland Regional Center in San Bernadino.  So we're all safe and nobody needs to be scared.

If we had a real definition, we'd know, and then you couldn't decide for yourself.

As Juliet said.
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

*It was the vacuous Khalil Gibran, had his Prophet say that we would "never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words."  He didn't add that at that point we would understand only that nobody had anything to say.  We might as readily reduce the language to grunts.

** I had a client on death row who died while his petition to the Supreme Court was pending.  The petition was dismissed as moot.  No relief for the dead guy.  On the other hand, the state of Ohio didn't get to execute him, though that's really not relevant here.

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