The Dreaded ‘T-Word’

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.
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At least no one can say that someone at the British Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the BBC, isn’t consistent. After being criticized for years for its refusal to use the word “terrorists” to describe those folks who, generally of the Islamic persuasion, make a habit of doing things like flying airplanes into the Twin Towers or blowing up buses and cafés in Israel, the BBC is now in the throes of an inner debate over whether this also applies to the suicide bombers who killed more than 50 people in the London underground several weeks ago.

The story was picked up first by the British Web site Harry’s Place (hurryupharry.bloghouse.net), which pointed out that on July 7, the day of the underground blasts, the BBC ran a news item with the following sentence: “A bus passenger says he may have seen one of those responsible for the terrorists’ bomb attacks in London.” By the following day, however, this had been amended to: “A bus passenger says he may have seen one of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London.”

Nor was this the only example of such a flip-flop. Again on July 8, a BBC journalist reporting on live television began by announcing: “Being stuck in a tunnel for 40 minutes is not an unusual occurrence in the London underground. But on the morning after the worst terrorist atrocity Britain has seen, even the most routine-sounding announcements took on a more sinister aspect.” Yet when this was released four hours later as a print item it read: “Being stuck in a tunnel for 40 minutes is not an unusual occurrence on the London underground. But on the morning after the worst peacetime bomb attacks Britain has seen….”

“Obviously,” a blogger at Harry’s Place wrote, “someone at Bush House [which is the BBC’s London headquarters, not the residence of George W. Bush] sent down the word to stop using the dread ‘T-word.’”

It must have been a true man or woman of principle. In the past, the BBC has been joined by other media in the United Kingdom in referring to perpetrators of indiscriminate, politically motivated killings in various parts of the world as “militants,” “activists,” “guerrillas,” “resistance fighters” and other euphemisms. Now that it’s happened, however, not in benighted Americans or barbaric Israel, but in good old England, even the left-wing newspaper The Guardian — as Jerusalem Post columnist Tom Gross recently observed — “seemed suddenly to discover the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist.’” There’s nothing like getting it on your own chin to find out that it hurts. It even happened at the BBC — until that “someone at Bush house” thought better of it.

That one man’s “terrorist” can be another’s “resistance fighter” or even “freedom fighter” is of course commonplace. Indeed, this is the reason given by media organizations like the BBC for avoiding the “T-word” entirely. Since using it in some cases and not in others, the argument goes, would mean playing political favorites and losing all objectivity, the only fair solution is to use it in no cases at all — even when the T-act occurs in your own backyard.

“Well, then,” the counterargument goes, “why not use the T-word in all cases? Let’s have no more ‘militants’ or ‘resistance fighters’ when innocent lives are being deliberately targeted, whether it’s in America, Israel, Chechnya, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Iraq or wherever. It doesn’t matter if we’re sympathetic to the causes involved or not. We may think that the Americans should leave Iraq, or that the Palestinians should have their own state, but if Iraqis randomly blow up other Iraqis, or Palestinians do the same to Israelis, they should be labeled terrorists, nonetheless.”

“Ah!” goes the counter-counterargument. “But what about the countries that these so-called terrorists are fighting against? When American airplanes bomb wedding parties in Iraq, or Israeli helicopters rocket innocent people in Gaza, shouldn’t the Americans and the Israelis be called terrorists, too? And what about the British carpet-bombing of Dresden in World War II, or the U.S. nuking of Hiroshima, which caused tens of thousands of innocent deaths: Isn’t that terrorism on a scale far dwarfing even the Twin Towers?”

Indeed it is, which is why in the opinion of this language columnist there is nothing wrong in referring to the “terror bombing” of Dresden or Hiroshima, since sowing mass terror in Germany and Japan, however justified this may have been in terms of hastening the war’s end and reducing Allied casualties, was what these attacks were calculated to achieve. Yet this was not the aim of the American pilots who mistakenly hit a wrong target in Iraq, or of Israeli attempts to kill Palestinian combatants in Gaza that resulted in the deaths of innocent bystanders.

Surely in any definition of terrorism or terror, the question of intention is crucial. If I purposely set out to kill innocent non-combatants, I am a terrorist or a perpetrator of terror; if I don’t, I am not. Even the BBC should be able to get that straight.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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