What is a “Terrorist”?

When I was growing up, “terrorist” seemed like a word that didn’t need a definition. It was self apparent. My first memory of encountering the word was actually through Back to the Future, where Doc Brown buys plutonium off “Libyan nationalists.” I remember not understanding what that meant, and asking for an explanation, which led to me having pictures of evil men going around blowing people up for little to no reason other than to make people afraid. When I found out terrorists would sometimes hijack airplanes or blow them up, that didn’t do wonders for my fears of flying, either.

But the fact was that “terrorists” were people who did terrible acts of violence against civilians, and as I grew older, I understood it was usually for political reasons. But the actual definition of the word appears to be much more complex. Webster’s has a great history of the word’s usage, showing how it has gone back and forth between terrorism originally being acts of the government against its citizens, over to acts of citizens against a government.

Today, Webster’s defines a terrorist as “an advocate or practitioner of terrorism as a means of coercion,” and defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”

Why does this matter? To me, it matters because I think many people still equate “terrorist” with suicide vests and planes exploding or crashing into buildings. When someone is called a terrorist, it’s a straightforward accusation of evil. But when I woke up this morning to find news that the US had killed a top ranking Iranian official via a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport, it took some time for me to come to grips with what exactly had happened. Who had been killed. Why. How. And (most importantly) what the fallout from this action would be.

I am not a military expert. I’m far from up to speed on the inner workings of the Middle East. I’m just a person sifting through the stories online, trying to make sense of what happened. You’d think that would be simple, but as with most things these days, it’s more an exercise in trying to read between the lines of political spin to try to get an inkling of the truth. Read the Republican accounts, and a top terrorist was killed, saving the lives of many Americans. Read the more liberal news, and it was a reckless action that has endangered America’s interests abroad.

I don’t know Qassim Suleimani. I wouldn’t have recognized the name if you’d said it to me yesterday. But from what I read now, it appears he was a high figure in Iran, second only to the Supreme Leader, according to some reports. A military leader. And I try to picture what it would be like if I had woken up this morning to discover a top general had been killed by an Iranian air strike at Heathrow. How disturbing and upsetting that would be.

Certainly the word “terrorist” has become politicized in much the same way “socialist” has over the years. When people use the word, it’s meant to make a complicated issue clean cut. Terrorists are bad, and they need to be stopped. But when the word applies not to rogue agents blowing up citizens and airplanes, but rather to governments that are acting counter to a different country’s interests, I think that clean cut nature dissolves in many ways.

Many have accused George W. Bush and Dick Cheney of being terrorists. Depending on how you’re using the word and who’s speaking, I can see that argument being made, especially by governments in Iran or other Middle Eastern nations. Would those nations be justified in killing Bush or Cheney via drone strike if they could?

What I mean to say is that the nature of war seems to only get blurrier with each passing year. Should Suleimani have been killed? I have no idea, honestly. I don’t know what he’s done, and I don’t know what he was planning on doing. I can’t imagine the political fallout that would have occurred if he had been captured and arrested by American forces. That would have been a much more difficult operation to carryout. Killing him with a drone, however, just meant they needed to know where he was at a particular point in time. It was, ironically, much easier to just kill him.

Just because we can do something, does it mean we should? Most of the articles I’m reading about the man say he’s been directly involved in killing American troops. Is that what it means to be a terrorist now? I think we need to be very cautious of how we use the word, because other people can then use that same definition to justify their actions on a global stage.

The more I read about it and think about it, the more unsettled I am with what happened last night. The justifications I read for it today don’t allay my concerns. I’m worried for what might come because of this action, and what the continued blurry definition of “terrorist” might mean in the years ahead. It’s one thing to be accused of something, it’s another to be found guilty. I get that war isn’t the time for courts and accusations, it’s the time for action. But when did we become involved in a war with Iran that justified this sort of action?

Welcome to 2020, I suppose.


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