Labels Matter

As the nation celebrates the July 4th weekend, many Americans will enjoy hanging out with friends, a day off from work, and watching the fireworks. The founding fathers are in American lore, portrayed as revolutionaries and freedom fighters throwing off the chains of British imperialism and oppression. One word that will not be used to describe America’s founding fathers? Terrorists. Despite the fact that the very people that are revered in American history advocated the violent overthrow of the government, popular American thought treats them as heroes.  But what if independence never happened? What if, those who advocated for the violent overthrow of the British government lost? They would be remembered as traitors, spies, and when the term terrorist came into fashion, they would be remembered and written about as terrorists.  How we label an event, whether an event that happened in the recent past or centuries before, matters.
This week at camp, I was able to have discussions with campers about terrorism-what actions are considered to fall under that umbrella and who gets to decide whether an action, a person, or a group get labeled terrorists.  In one of my interest groups, I read to them four different scenarios. I read the scenarios multiple times, each time, I provided a different context or background. In one reading I just read the scenario as I had written it, in the next I read a quote from a Muslim extremist organization that seemed to fit with the scenario, and finally I revealed that the various scenarios I had written were in fact based on Bible stories. Some of the stories are a cherished part of Christian and Jewish faith, others are verses and stories we prefer to ignore. Each time I read the scenario and provided a different context I asked the campers, “is this an act of terrorism? Why or why not?”
I was surprised to find that even though the scenarios were based on scripture, the campers didn’t automatically justify the stories or Bible verses as being “just” but they were willing to grapple with the question of whether the Scripture that we hold so dear, has stories that endorse violence. They were willing to question whether or not some of the stories in the text, could today, be labeled as terrorism. Of course the purpose of this exercise isn’t to justify terrorism or violent action in any form-but it is meant to get campers to realize that “terrorism” is a complex subject based less on objective analysis and more on questions of power-who has to the power to label certain actions as terrorism while describing other actions, even those in which civilians are killed and targeted, as heroic. Or in the case of the Bible, these stories become part of a sacred text.
I will say this again, how we label something or someone matters.  In the West, “terrorism” is most often associated with the actions of violent Muslim extremists groups or individuals. As a result, the label terrorist has taken on a specific racial, religious, and cultural meaning. This means that a shooting by someone who is Muslim, looks Muslim, or is from a predominantly Muslim country will be investigated and labeled a terrorist attack while a shooting by a white male against people of color with the stated purpose of starting a race war, will be investigated as murder and as a hate crime.
This association of terrorism with Islam means that Western governments will justify torturing suspected terrorists, holding them in isolation with limited contact with family, friends, and the outside world without officially charging them, and blanket surveillance of Muslim communities, in the name of “national security.” Labeling someone or an action as falling under the umbrella of terrorism is not just an issue of semantics, but it is also a justice issue.  The campers this week understood this, why do so many of us adults have such a hard time understanding this?

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