Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Does the Word "Terrorism" Mean?

That of course depends on whom you ask and when.

Terrorism is derivative of terror, from the Latin terrorem: something that intimidates, an object to be feared. Of greater relevance to modern usage though is the 11th century Roman term, terror cimbricus, which referred to the fear in the ranks as an army was anticipating a battle with a fierce enemy. Watch the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan before the ramps on the Higgins Boats go down. Men shaking, retching, smoking, some of them laughing in response to the abject fear. This state of dread is terror cimbricus, and it is the point of terrorism; not necessarily the spectacular assaults, but rather the unease that inhabits the time between them.

The guillotining of Louis XVI in Paris ushered in the Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, who routinely guillotined his political opponents in the town square. This period in France’s history would become known as The Reign of Terror. In a tip of the hat to terror cimbricus, a well understood term in those days, a journalist for The London Times coined the word terrorism to describe the actions of Robespierre. In 1795, it was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary as describing government by intimidation.

The definition has since come to mean the use of violence to coerce or intimidate governments or civilians. So when did that happen? Well, it took some doing. First, unrest in Russia in the late 19th century led to the rise of The People’s Will, a reasonably successful group of assassins who killed Alexander II among other prominent political figures. A giddy American press watching Russia in turmoil described the covert, committed and surgically accurate assassins as terrorists, only with a connotation of revolutionary gusto, while still implying the reek of being less than moralistic.

American newspaper writers would wrestle the word “terrorism” back again to its original meaning in the 1930s to describe the totalitarian governments of the time, notably Russia and Italy, Stalin known in those years as “The Great Terror.”  Then after World War II, the pendulum swung back to the revolutionary nuance of the word, only this time without the glint of approval, as it was happening to the friends of post-war industrialists seeking to make the most out of fresh treaties and new borders, and so began the contemporary definition of the indiscriminate killer of innocents, often to political or religious ends, sometimes indiscriminately. It is such a good word, such a prima facie indictment of its target that it couldn't lay fallow while the enemy was our own so the definition had to be managed a bit, and that was all done in the press.

The definition of terrorism is fluid, and it has been since its initial coinage, largely massaged by power and media, and in classic Orwellian 1984 Newspeak, terrorism has now come to mean its own original opposite. That one of the most important news stories of my lifetime is a contranym spanning the centuries is just one example of why words fascinate me.