What’s the Point of ‘Terrorism’?

BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence yesterday hosted a debate on the use of the word ‘terrorism’ regarding the conflict in and about northern Ireland. There’s a long-running public debate over who gets to use the word, and what to define with it. It mixes up politics and personal pain, and serves for some as a way of respecting the gravity of their suffering, while for others it’s a way of demonizing their experience.

My thinking on this is shaped by something I think I heard someone else say once – that if part of the intent or consequence of an act was to create terror, then it’s terrorism, no matter who does it – state or non-state actors alike. So what persists for me is that amongst a thousand other truths, in northern Ireland and elsewhere, the state and non-state actors alike sometimes did terrible things, and everyone thinks they have their reasons.

Most of our people getting to the point of mutual recognition of the validity of that statement would, I think, be a massively positive step. (And it’s of course not the only step: it needs to go alongside accountability, truth-telling, and at the very least some form of amends or reparations as part of a restorative justice process alongside vast listening to, consoling, lamenting with, and respect for victim/survivors.)

Meanwhile, I’m very aware that in the US, my adopted country, that kind of radio debate pretty much never happens in the mainstream/dominant media. Indeed the utterly mainstream view in northern Ireland – that peace comes through negotiation between enemies – is considered anti-patriotic by many, and is only very rarely aired by the national networks or political figures. Until, all of a sudden, President Obama is on the phone with the Iranian President trying to work things out. So maybe we’re getting there.

But the question remains – how can we tell the kind of stories (about northern Ireland, about 9/11, about our people’s chosen traumas, whatever they may be) that might lead to sincerely fearful, certainly wounded, people transforming their response to the legitimate memory of sorrow into something better than retribution?

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