Was London's brutal attack really terrorism?

Words matter. As a reporter, I know that as much as those who condemn me for my choices of words.

Freedom of speech means we can apply any words we like to events, such as the murder of a man in Woolwich, England, on Wednesday. But for some, the choice carries a certain enjoyment factor that taints and manipulates.

The attack on a man in the street, extremely violent and then flaunted for members of the public who videoed it, was quickly branded "terrorism" by various media outlets.

One of the attackers talks to the camera with bloodied hands: AP

One of the attackers talks to the camera with bloodied hands: AP

There can be no doubt that anyone who commits crimes of suck violence are terrorISING. But that's not necessarily terrorism.

Someone on Twitter insisted to me that the reference to god by one of the attackers made it an "act of terror". By that logic, we need to re-clarify the witch-burning trials and Spanish Inquisition of past centuries as terrorism. Or you could call a broken window "terrorism" if someone blamed god, instead of vandalism.

Most crimes are terrorising without ever being branded "terror". Other people carry out criminal acts in the name of a god, but we don't call it terrorism. In fact, I've covered many court cases over the years involving attacks with meat cleavers, machetes and other blades and they didn't get the media coverage or emergency meetings by the top officials of governments.

And there are many youths from ethnic minority communities stabbed in London almost weekly and they get little or no news coverage.

If the victim turns out to be a serving soldier, as has been suggested widely, does that mean the act against him was terrorism?

The concept of terrorism is either defined as a crime that causes the public to feel terrorised. But a serial killer on the streets would not be classed a terrorist. So is the terror caused by the crime, or by the applying of that term?

By repeatedly using the term in news reports, does that make the public's sense of being terrorised worse than the same crime if it was only described as "murder"?

If the attack turns out to have been coordinated by outside individuals, it could more easily be classed as terrorism under the definition of a criminal conspiracy. But again, who does this term suit?

"Terror" is a word chosen by many to justify hate, racism, revenge, suspension of certain civil liberties and all sorts of political ideologies. The racist English Defence League, upon learning of the attack, immediately called all their supporters to get to London or to take to the streets wherever they could to "take back the country".

And as abhorrent as their views are, thousands and thousands of new supporters "liked" their Facebook page. It suits their narrative of racism against Muslims and hatred towards Islam. It suited the Bush administration to have an enemy that justified the invasion of Iraq.

"Terrorism" was and remains a politics of control and manipulation.

Am I being a "liberal apologist" here? No. Terrorism is a term used to dismiss questions of politicians, of religious leaders, of police and of the actions, beliefs and behaviours of society. Being cautious about how and when we use the term in no way makes the criminals responsible for violent acts innocent.

People will always commit crimes, and how we react is a measure of the strength of society and repelling the very "terror" supposedly being inflicted upon us.

Words matter. Shouldn't we think about which ones we use?

Updated Date: May 23, 2013 11:34 AM

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