The New York Times posed an interesting question in a recent editorial: “Manhattan attack is called terrorism. What about Vegas?”
The words a journalist chooses are central to the first impression in which they imprint on their readers, and are equally pivotal in establishing objectivity. To use such a word “terrorism,” a word whose very root refers to a drastic fear response without first considering the greater effects on the audience is simply irresponsible, especially in trying to be objective.
The word “terrorism,” according to a Merriam Webster blog “The History of The Word Terrorism” actually traces its roots back to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Yes, the word which now carries connotations of religious and racial otherness was coined by none other than the white race to describe violence against itself. Our own founding fathers used the word to discuss tyrannical monarchists, and prohibitionera journalists used the word to depict gang violence. Historically speaking, the word refers to internalized threats.
While the New York Times defined terrorism as “an attack on civilians meant to frighten a larger community for political purposes,” Webster’s definition is strictly free of political connotations. It is simply, “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Various other dictionaries include the political undertones retained from the word’s origins.
Whether or not it is included in the definition, the word carries with it connotations of a political motive, as the Webster article notes: “It has been suggested following recent tragic events that the perpetrators should be referred to as terrorists, and sometimes they are, but predominant contemporary usage still reserves terrorism for those crimes that have specific political motives.”
By this definition, the language makes sense- following a global terror organization’s directions to a T does bring with it a political motive. A single lone wolf shooter does not.
Yet, this seems wrong.
While the acts of the Vegas shooting were infinitely more terrifying, horrific, and psychologically upsetting, the political motive was simply not there. And in that, the journalist is correct. Yet, the poet, the human, may not agree. Although a journalist is not a poet, he must weigh his words like one, choose each carefully, listen to how each one will affect his reader. He must understand the first impression his words will have on another. And this word is a word of sensuality, of fear, a word which should be used with the utmost consideration and caution.