Oxford English Dictionary definition:

terrorist

noun a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

— DERIVATIVES terrorism noun

I was reading an American blog the other day and was surprised to note that the writer had called all Iraqi people fighting back against US soldiers “terrorists”.

Poised to leave a comment highlighting this inadvertent error, a worrying thought suddenly occurred to me. Perhaps there was more to this writer’s use of language than a shaky grasp on his mother tongue. Perhaps he genuinely thought Iraq was a country comprised of terrorists, not ordinary people.

Does any 21st century westerner really hold such a shallow concept of ‘foreign’ countries, I wondered? Quotation from blogs like this sounds like satire, a classic pastiche of the “them and us” mindset of previous generations. Surely such xenophobic misconceptions about other members of the human race have been consigned to history, along with the burning of heretics?

So I decided to look around for proof, to see how widespread this blanket “terrorism” misconception was.

Blogs are a great place to start research of this kind, because that’s where ordinary people feel free to express their ideas without censorship, commercial incentives or political expediency. Blogs had to be my first stop.

Reading… and more reading

And it didn’t take long before I found more evidence of confusion. This writer is convinced that “The Marines are steadily and successfully killing terrorists and breaking things in Fallujah.” This one announces proudly “Operation Hurricane Blows Away 60 Terrorists”. I don’t doubt that both bloggers are certain of the accuracy of their descriptions.

On the other hand, one blog entry dated June 2004 (i.e. before the latest Fallujah offensive) discusses the contradictory use of language. The writer is posting from Iraq. “The subject of terrorism was breached, and Amin grew quickly frustrated. He felt the US was being hypocritical in calling Arabs who fight against them terrorists. ‘They are fighting to protect their city… why don’t the Americans call soldiers from Honduras here terrorists?’ He continued, ‘They are fighting Iraqis…but they are not called terrorists? What is the difference?'”

Back to the other view. This blogger says the massacre of Fallujah’s remaining citizens is justifiable because they are “vermin”. Those who haven’t succumbed to foreign threats or been hounded out of their homes have only themselves to blame. “At this point, it appears that the only people left in Fallujah are those who support the terrorists. Those who fled earlier are willing for the Marines and Iraqi forces to reduce the city to rubble, if necessary, to get rid of the vermin that infests it.”

In the 1930s, Third Reich propaganda and ‘news’ described the Jews in similar terms of sub-humanity and infestation, softening up the German public for genocide. Such use of language is chillingly familiar to those conversant with Holocaust history. As this messageboard poster notes, “The propaganda of Dr. Goebbels and Vichy France kept calling the French Resistance ‘terrorists.'” Presumably that comparison didn’t occur to everyone.

One blogger goes a step further and derides the entire Muslim religion in a single stroke. Despite US and UK governments stating openly that there is absolutely no link between the World Trade Center attacks and Iraq, and the fact that there have been no Iraqi nationals involved in any terrorism in America, this blogger has picked up an illogical idea and run with it. “It is evident that ‘liberals’ in the media have ‘forgotten’ that the US was attacked and that thousands of American civilians were killed by ruthless, immoral, moon-god worshiping swine.” Oh yes, moon-god worshippers. Damn those pesky amnesiac liberals.

See, it’s OK to slaughter Iraqi civilians. They’re ‘them’, the dangerous, unknown other. They’re not human, they’re “terrorists”, “swine”, “vermin”. Pass the salt.

Where does such breathtakingly arrogant ignorance come from? How does any educated adult labour under the misapprehension that all Arabs are terrorists, all resistance is terrorism and all those who do not acquiesce to foreign occupation are “vermin”? How does any semi-educated person conclude that reactively fighting against a foreign army invading your city is the same thing as proactively creating violent disturbance in an attempt to achieve political aims by intimidation?

Actually, forget education. How could anybody of sound mind possibly blur these concepts?

News available in every colour! As long as it’s red, white and blue

One look at the mainstream American media answers that. This conceptual confusion is everywhere because it’s the official American truth.

Here’s an excerpt from a New York Post column:

“Since the political decision to stop short in Fallujah last April, the terrorists had bragged to the world that the city would never fall to the infidel. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his thugs turned Fallujah into a vast dungeon, complete with torture chambers and execution halls. The terrorists stockpiled weapons and ammunition, welcoming thousands of international “Jihadis” and using the city as a base to spread terror across central Iraq…

Fallujah became the new world capital of terror. And Allah’s butchers proclaimed that they’d slaughter U.S. troops in the streets, if they tried to enter the city.

Guess who’s dying now?”

The writer stops short of yelling “Three cheers for mass bloodshed!”, but only just.

Everywhere you look is the fresh footprint of new bogeyman Al-Zarqawi and his mythical “thousands of international Jihadis”. He’s been wheeled onto the media stage in the absence of Osama bin Laden. The “torture chambers” and armies of foreign “thugs” mentioned above are a propaganda fantasy denied even by soldiers currently posted in Iraq. Nobody’s seen any evidence of his presence in Fallujah and nobody really believes he’s in control of the city. But never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?

This journalist perpetuates the myth that al-Zarqawi is running a “network” operating from Fallujah. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian whom Iraqi citizens maintain is nothing to do with their resistance against US occupation. Many believe even his presence in Iraq is a US fiction designed to justify the destruction of civilian towns. It’s impossible for us to know which version of events is true, if either, but it is indubitably not the cut-and-dried issue these media reports claim. As this blogger points out, truth is a scarce commodity in war, particularly where it concerns the infamous al-Zarqawi.

This report also frames the Fallujah conflict in terms of good and evil. It states “In Fallujah, valiant American heroes search for ammunition and find much in the terrorist-infested city… Valiant US Marines move toward the center bringing justice to terrorists. Only the MSM would try to bring portray this crushing of terrorism as a defeat.” John Wayne’s heroic silhouette is almost discernible behind the text, like a watermark.

The Washington Times overlooks the thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, but shrieks “Terrorists kill dozens in Iraq attacks”. Another writer quotes US puppet “minister of provincial affairs” Wael Abdel-Latif in calling the Iraqi resistance “terrorists”. At no point does the article admit that the interim Iraqi government has been put in place by the invading country and thus hardly speaks for the ordinary citizens of Iraq.

You’re either with us or against us

Heard that the International Red Cross and Amnesty International have condemned the US/UK attacks for destroying medical supplies and killing medical personnel? Thank goodness the NY Post is here to put us straight. “U.S. and Iraqi forces are attacking on multiple axes, keeping the terrorists off balance. Key sites within the city already have been seized — including a hospital that cared more about propaganda than its patients.”

Heard the one about Al Qaeda having links with Iraq? Well yes, we know it’s a fabrication put around in rumour form because it is perceived as helpful to the US government, and the media knows this too. But it doesn’t stop some journalists from dropping the name of Al Qaeda into their Iraq news stories as though it is fact.

They may as well just call all opposition “Satan” – like Lt. Col. Brandl did in his pre-attack army peptalk – and be done with it.

Somewhere along the line, “Al Qaeda” has become shorthand for “terrorist”, and “terrorist” has become shorthand for “anyone who tries to stop us”. Distinct, unrelated concepts have been whizzed up into a single meaningless froth. News is now served as a low carb smoothie and there’s only one flavour on the menu.

OK, there are exceptions. Pockets of critical thinking do remain. Some mainstream journalists are not afraid to question the US-led war effort. Open-source news agencies such as Indymedia do report on controversial issues such as US use of chemical weapons in Fallujah. And these sources are vital, because they show us an angle we wouldn’t otherwise see. In Europe, dissent is slowly becoming more widespread even in mainstream publications. But in America, it seems those whispering misgivings about the war are frequently drowned out by those banging drums in favour of it.

It’s hardly surprising. Try to see all sides of the crisis in America and you’re immediately labelled as unpatriotic. Every day we’re reminded by American media: The USA is eternally on the side of justice, truth, compassion, selfless sacrifice for duty. We’re always fighting for oppressed people’s benefit, not our own. We’re the world’s policeman, always ready with a friendly smile and a stack of lovely, liberating bombs.

As Lynne Cheney said in a recent interview, “Well, but Matt, you’re being awfully relativistic here. I mean, the insurgents are killing Iraqis by the hundreds, Iraqis by the thousands. It’s not as though this is a matter between just ‘on the one hand on the other hand.’ We are on the side of freedom.”

So… now what?

This manipulation of words and the consequent reduction of complexities to Manichean polar opposites amounts to a war on language. How can we reinstate joined-up thinking to a defiantly simplistic debate?

Our mainstream media won’t point out their own mistakes. Our governments aren’t going to jump in to correct misconceptions which help with their propaganda efforts. Those who benefit from the butchered language of 21st century war reporting aren’t going to volunteer to defend accuracy. Hell, they’re propagating this nonsense.

Bloggers, armchair pundits and outraged citizens: I think the reality check may be down to us. Because if not us… then who?