Stop indiscriminate use of word 'terror'

The concept of terrorism is being brandished like a weapon. It denounces and isolates—labeling with connotations of horror and unspeakable barbarism. Terrorists are those beyond the pale of reason, inhuman, senseless. Our current government uses the word as a means of dehumanizing opponents, faceless monsters that must be battled at all costs—even that of civil liberties and human rights. This demagoguery has been used to justify the indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo Bay, in defiance of both international and domestic law. The rhetoric of terrorism has led to the excesses at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqis have been subjected to the grossest of dehumanizing acts. Is this not terrifying?

The word terror reflects the natural fear and anxiety of being harmed. But such incendiary language inspires panic and alarm. It inhibits the rational assessment of the reasons, conditions and history that lead to a given conflict, thus preventing the search for solutions. A recent petition to the University administration employs misleading and inflammatory language to condemn the Palestinian Solidarity Movement. Contrary to the accusation leveled by the petition, the movement does not support violence, but seeks viable alternatives, namely divestment. The trading of accusations, however, has led our community into a standoff.

Engaging in a debate of violence—righteous versus unrighteous, legitimate or illegitimate, defensive or offensive—only leads to impasse. It culminates in a spiral of competing claims—with each side endlessly mirroring the other’s accusations. This kind of conversation resembles the reciprocal violence plaguing the Middle East, a mortal volley between faceless opponents.

Empathy can bring this cycle to a grinding halt. The due consideration of another’s perspective and motives makes dialogue possible. Only through communication can the different context of another’s history, beliefs, and suffering be understood. This is truly the meaning of converse—to turn something around, convert the terms of engagement and consider the worth of another’s argument.

We read to consider perspectives different from our own in time and space. We discuss to dismantle and shake up assumptions, examine the truth of competing claims and attempt to clarify or settle. Reproducing self-righteous doctrine or dogma—propaganda designed to discredit your enemies—does nothing but reproduce the primary conditions leading to violence.

The PSM Conference is a chance to consider the humanity of the Palestinians—rather than color them in a war paint that stains our own hands. Let’s use the conference as a chance to sit at the same table, inhabit the same space and listen to each other’s languages.


Ellen McLarney

Assistant Professor of the Practice

Asian and African Languages and Literature


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