You know the old adage that one side’s terrorist is the other side’s freedom fighter?  Take our own history with the forced removal of Native Americans as our non-native population pushed Westward basically slaughtering Indians (Columbus’ colossal misnomer that still sows worldwide confusion today) along the way.  We, the then-recently arrived non-native Americans, described the folks who had been living here in America long before they were “discovered” by European sailors, as savages, heathens, redskins and any number of other choice demonizing terms.  We, the dominant white group, demonized the Native Americans we were slaughtering in order to assuage ourselves that their lives were less valuable than ours, that ‘they” were less human than we were, that we were “right and righteous” about killing them.  Who then, one must enquire, were the terrorists?  Them?  Or Us?

In my youth, ensconced as I was in an all-white suburban community, a minor variation of the demonization meme concerned the Italian-Americans in school and in the neighborhood.  They were our “diminished value” under-group especially since there were no African Americans to be seen anywhere nearby.  Back then, Italian Americans, mostly second generation, were derisively called Greaseballs, Slimeballs, Dagos, Wops and Guineas.  Maybe more such terms, but these are the derogatory ones that come immediately to mind.  And as for African Americans, who definitely would have replaced the Italians on the lowest rung of the social standing ladder, the dehumanizing terms ranged from Picaninnie, Jungle Bunny, Coon all the way to the penultimtate “Nigger” that all of us are familiar with.  Without this form of projected degradation and dehumanization, it would be reasonable to ask if lynching might have been a less easy and celebratory task for the dominant white over-group.  But who knows?

Certainly, the demonization of the “other” is no modern invention and has served to denote “them” from “us” from time immemorial.  But a passage in Jean Genet’s “Prisoner of Love” made me stop and think about who we label “terrorists” around the world today and how easily we use such terms to distance ourselves from people and events that we abhor, don’t understand or care not to acknowledge even the germ of a “rightness” they may feel towards their actions no matter how “foreign” their goals, values and ideology may be to us.  Here’s the quote from Genet’s work, written in 1984, following the invasion of Lebanon by Israel in the fall of 1982:
“If you are against Israel you’re not an enemy or an opponent – you are a terrorist.  Terrorism is supposed to deal death indiscriminately, and must be destroyed wherever it appears.

Very smart of Israel to carry the war right into the heart of vocabulary, and annex the words holocaust and genocide.  The invasion of Lebanon didn’t make Israel an intruder or a predator.  The destruction and massacres in Beirut weren’t the work of terrorists armed by America and dropping bombs day and night for thee months on a capital with two million inhabitants: they were the act of an angry householder with the power to inflict heavy punishment on a troublesome neighbor.  Words are terrible and Israel is a terrifying manipulator of signs.  Sentence doesn’t necessarily precede execution; if an execution has already been carried out, a sentence will gradually justify it.  When it kills a Shiite who is also a Palestinian, Israel claims to have cleansed the world of two terrorists at once.”    

A rather brightly chilling condemnatory passage isn’t it?  Remember, this was written forty years ago.  And forty years later I am reminded by this passage of the firing of the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s “Theater J” Artistic Director, Ari Roth, in Washington just a few months ago for producing theatrical performances that were either critical of Israel or sympathetic to the Palestinians.  Or both.  In this case, nothing much has changed – Palestinians are still demonized, still labeled terrorists with little or no empathy for, nor understanding of the “rightness” of their cause, even if only from their point of view. 

The language we use to describe and denote ourselves and our “others” can be a very powerful cultural weapon that simplifies and obscures, making it easier for us to condemn while forgoing and forgiving the necessary effort required to know and to understand.  Applying and using such demonizing language as “savage” and “terrorist” is a dangerous sophism that is often purposely designed to manipulate just as the use of propaganda is and does. 

Thus, while we rightly abhor and condemn murderous acts of violence, whether those of 9-11, Boston and Paris, or Newtown and Columbine, it would be cautious and prudent of us to be a bit sparse in our labeling of murderous acts as blanket acts of terrorism since history has a funny way of turning some terrorist acts into Godly revolutions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   Our own terrorist acts - as correctly defined by the rightly instituted government of England back in 1776 - is one such example.   On the other hand, in today’s perspective, Boko Haram and ISIS are correctly termed terrorists organizations based on the commonly held definition of “terrorism:”

 "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives"

The Weathermen and the Black Panthers – two of our more recent domestic terrorist organizations - would rightly fall under the rubric of the terrorist label.  But we need to be careful about simply accepting the demonizing labels lest we fail to recognize legitimate in some cases concerns and grievances lying just below the surface labels.  Plus it would not be at all contemptible to pause and remember that no matter how egregious the crimes, and they are, these crimes are committed by people, by human beings, not so unlike you and me.  And who can gainsay what unlikely or even unthinkable set of circumstances might engulf us and turn us to the unspeakable?  Every murderer was once a newborn who possessed nary a thought of violence and mayhem.

Every once in a while a truth may come to light if we make the effort to gain knowledge and understanding and use our capacity for empathy.  We place ourselves in great peril if we don’t make the effort.  After all, empathy doesn’t mean agreement or sympathy with “the other” and with murderous acts of terror but it does mean that we can put ourselves in their circumstances, metaphorically at least, and perhaps more clearly perceive his or her or their world from his or her or their point of view.  


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