When is a terrorist a terrorist?

One of the biggest challenges facing journalists reporting conflict is the choice of language. I have just contributed an article to the Language in Conflict website. In it, I discuss some of the editorial issues in the choice of language. You can read it here.

‘The problem we had then was the terrorists,’ began the former soldier. A veteran of the Second World War, victory over Hitler’s Germany had for him brought no rest. Instead, he had been sent to another conflict. It was 1946. Britain’s mandate to administer Palestine was coming to an end. In 1948, Israel would win what it thinks of as its War of Independence; what Palestinians refer to as ‘al Nakba’: the catastrophe. The conversation took place in late 2002. The invasion of Iraq was three months away. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reaching one of its periodic, violent, peaks.

The words used every day by combatants, policymakers, and academics when referring to armed conflict can present considerable challenges for journalists reporting those conflicts.

We seem to have many more narratives than we did a decade or so ago. Is it to do with the complexity of a world after the end of the Cold War; a world after September 11th; a world still confused by the on-going consequences of the financial crisis of the last decade, or has the word ‘narrative’ just found greater favour?

The OED offers as a primary definition the word’s legal meaning, in part ‘a statement of alleged or relevant facts’[i], although it gives the 14th century French ‘narratif’ or ‘narrative’ as etymology. The OED’s secondary meaning is ‘an account of a series of events, facts, etc’[ii]. This is the one we increasingly here in discussion of conflict – political or armed conflict –today. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the word often appears these days as part of the phrase ‘competing narratives’. That phrase seems to imply, more than anything else, that ‘there can never be agreement on this’. It may be that this phrase’s contemporary prominence is a reflection of the peace process’ stalled, if not moribund, state. What happened before, after, and in 1948 is at the heart of the ‘competing narratives’ best summarized by the ‘War of Independence’/ ‘al-Nakba’ versions of events.

Of course, a simple explanation here would be that the interpretation of events depends largely on the person you are talking to. Journalists usually, although certainly not always, see it as their job to try to balance ‘competing narratives’ by referring to parts of both of them. This is a task which it is impossible to accomplish to the satisfaction of the two belligerents (assuming there are only two – not the case in recent conflicts such as those in Libya or Syria) or many other interested, disinterested, or possibly even uninterested observers.

‘Terrorist’ is one word which causes particular difficulties for some reporters, and has done so especially since September 11th, and the ‘war on terror’ which followed. It was not just the authorities in the United States which used the word with ever greater frequency; its increased usage seemed to race around the world irrespective of the conditions of the conflict in question. Israel, facing then a second Palestinian intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was one example; Russia (the word is even the same in Russian), fighting separatists in its troubled North Caucasus region, another.

The perimeter wall of a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, 2002

The perimeter wall of a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, 2002

What does the word ‘terrorist’ mean? Most definitions would include the idea of a person seeking to gain political ends by violent means; most definitions too would take in the idea that the ‘terrorist’ was not a member of a recognized government or military force associated with one.

Consider, though, the blanket way in which the term has come to be used in the last ten years. Many people would agree that the September 11th attackers were terrorists. Many people would agree that someone placing a bomb on a bus or train full of civilians was a terrorist. The same name has frequently been used – in Gaza or Iraq, for example – for those firing on occupying forces. The latter case is obviously much less clear cut – especially when the word ‘terrorist’ is never conventionally applied to an established military force invading a country.

For those reasons, two of the news organizations I worked for during my career as a journalist, Reuters and The BBC World Service, only use the word ‘terrorist’ in direct speech. So while you will see it in reports of statements by generals, presidents, and prime ministers, you will not see it in the copy written by correspondents. The BBC’s domestic services are less rigorous – a source of occasional tension between different editorial platforms.

This matters because of the editorial decisions implicit in the choice of language. For how can those journalistic cultures which prize objectivity be said to remain true to their own values when they adopt, without qualification, the language of one or other party to a conflict? ‘Collateral damage’, for example, is not a phrase which would come easily to someone who had just seen their family killed and their home destroyed because they lived near a ‘terrorist’.

To return, in conclusion, to ‘competing narratives’, and to the war veteran: the terrorists of whom he spoke were neither Palestinian fighters, nor Iraqi insurgents. They were armed Jewish groups, fighting the British presence in what would soon become Israel.  Among their number were future commanders in the Israeli Army, and senior politicians. In time, they would come to use freely the description with which they had once been damned.


[i] OED.com ‘narrative n.’ available at http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/125146?rskey=YbWj5F&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid, Accessed 7 June 2013.

[ii] Ibid.

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