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“Terrorism” and Lexical Warfare


On December 22, 2012, the civil-rights organization called The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund posted a news item that read,

FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

Some have called this “a stunning revelation.” Others refer to it as “groundbreaking.” On one point, it is both. A deep and sustained cooperation existed between law enforcement and crony state corporations, such as banks, to violate the rights of Occupy movement members.

Otherwise, there is nothing stunning or groundbreaking about the government targeting a nonviolent, domestic political group for massive surveillance, police harassment, and illegal arrest on the basis of their beliefs.

Dissenters have been terrorists for years now

From left to right to libertarian, dissenters have been officially viewed as terrorist threats for years now. Fusion centers — centers through which law-enforcement personnel on all levels “share” information — have proliferated since 2003. Surveillance, legal or otherwise, is one of their main tools.

At the same time, the definitions of “dissenter” and “terrorist” have moved ever closer to each other.

In Spring 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued the report “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic And Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” (PDF).

The DHS shifted some focus toward what it called “right-wing extremist groups.” What constituted right-wing extremism? FOX News explained, “The government considers you a terrorist threat if you oppose abortion, own a gun or are a returning war veteran.”

About a month earlier, the Missouri Information Analysis Center had released a similar report, “The Modern Militia Movement.” Those who supported Ron Paul’s candidacy for presidential nominee were considered militia-influenced terrorists. Police in Missouri were told to look for cars with bumper stickers or other indications of support for Paul or for the Libertarian Party.

In 2010, it was revealed that a Florida fusion center had also spied on Ron Paul supporters.

One document demonstrates how broad and dangerous the definition of “terrorist” has become. The official Pennsylvania State Terrorism Awareness and Training Web Site offered a 2011 guide entitled “Who are Terrorists?

(Note: although it was once available as an open web page, the guide now requires registration and can be accessed only by those who meet state requirements and verification; for example, you must be a citizen with an existing account, “a Commonwealth Employee, or other individual with specialized credentials.” Thus, it is not possible to determine the guide’s current wording. This is a common problem with documents that have embarrassed the government. The preceding link to the guide leads to the “Wayback Machine”; this free service archives Internet material in an open format.)

Among those who should be suspected of domestic terrorism, the Pennsylvania guide listed anti-government groups. Under the introduction to a section entitled Anti-Government Issues and Beliefs, it stated, “Often associated with unorganized militias, the Anti-Government movement actually embraces a much larger variety of groups and causes. The extreme fringe believes that the U.S. government is either the enemy or has been subverted by the enemy and must be actively defended against.”

Separatists and anarchists are specifically mentioned. One reason anarchists are singled out is that they “believe every organization or government will eventually be corrupted by power.” That is, they agree with the 19th-century classical-liberal Lord Acton: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Other “extremist” beliefs that indicate you are a terrorist threat include

  • Believing that gun control is part of a conspiracy to oppress people by removing their ability to defend themselves;
  • Believing in the right of jury nullification;
  • Believing that “Federal and State governments do not have the legal authority to levy taxes or interfere with travel or private enterprise by requiring licenses or regulating activity or conduct.”

“Single issue groups” are deemed especially dangerous and prone to “harassment” tactics. Examples of single-issue groups are not given, but they would almost certainly include pro-life protesters.

How has the definition of “terrorist” become such a flexible tool of the state? In fact, the definition shift is worse than you think.

The roots of “terrorism”

Philosophy Professor Peter Ludlow uses the term “lexical warfare” to describe “battles over how a term is to be understood. Our political discourse is full of such battles … who gets to be called ‘Republican’ … what ‘freedom’ should mean, what legitimately gets to be called ‘rape’ — and the list goes on.”

“Terrorism” is a colossal victim of lexical warfare.

The word “terror” comes from the Latin terrorem, which means “great fear” or “dread.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “terrorism” arose during the Reign of Terror in the wake of the French Revolution (1789). “Terrorisme” in the French Reign of Terror (1793–1794) referred specifically to violence committed by the state against individuals; it described a period of savagery during which the French government executed tens of thousands of people whom it declared enemies of the state. The guillotine conducted political purges, executed aristocrats and clergy, punished hoarders, and enforced unpopular laws. Terrorism was an act through which the state brutalized and intimidated civilians.

In the mid-to-late 19th century, the term also became associated with radicals who advocated violence to overthrow a government or a specific ruler. This “private” brand of terrorism usually aimed at assassination, but it also embraced “propaganda of the deed.” That concept refers to acts of violent retaliation against those deemed to be political enemies, including entire classes, such as “the rich.” The image of a left-anarchist throwing a bomb into an expensive restaurant is rooted in propaganda of the deed.

Nevertheless, “terrorism” continued to describe government violence against civilians as well. For example, the first English use of the term “terror bombing” may well have occurred in reference to Germany’s WWII air attack on the city of Rotterdam (1941). The purpose of that bombing was strategic, not defensive. The Germans wanted to destroy Holland’s economic base and the will of its people to resist invasion. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels referred to the bombing of civilian cities as terrorangriffe, or terror attacks. By contrast, the Allies described their own civilian bombing raids in politer terms, such as “area bombing.”

Today the term “terrorism” refers to violence or criminal acts committed by a non-governmental individual or group in order to further a political message or goal. Usually, a terrorist targets state personnel and symbols or a state-aligned agency, such as a bank. The 9/11 attack destroyed New York City’s Twin Towers as a symbol of America and capitalism. (Although the term “state-sponsored terrorism” is now sometimes used, it refers to a state that funds or otherwise facilitates the terrorist acts of individuals or groups.)

U.S. law enforcement admits that “there is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism.” But here are some of the standard ones that have been used by different government agencies:

  • The Department of Defense: “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”
  • The FBI: “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 Department of State: “Premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

These definitions of terrorism share several common features. The “politically-motivated” behavior is usually directed against a government. It generally subsumes violence, the threat of violence, and acts of intimidation; what constitutes a threat or intimidation is vague. Terrorism from groups or clandestine individuals seeks to acquire influence in order to further “political or social objectives.”

Thus, a terrorist is a person with political, social or ideological goals that are both deeply held and highly critical of the U.S. government. He may use violence; he may not. The “peaceful terrorist” attempts to influence society in ways that others sometimes find intimidating; for example, he may insist on owning a gun. The terrorist is also “clandestine”; that is, he cleaves to privacy and resists surveillance.

The “peaceful terrorist” is a libertarian standing in the good company of others who dissent; for example, those who believe “freedom of speech” has a literal meaning.


The transformation of the word “terrorist” has shifted focus from the raw reality of state violence onto the mere possibility of individual violence, which is defined broadly enough to include dissent. In a stunning lexical victory, the police state has become the victim. Those who peacefully exercise their natural rights have become the terrorists.

No one should be surprised by revelations of the government’s massive surveillance of peaceful individuals. The surveillance should be everyone’s starting assumption.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).