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What Does Terrorism Mean in 2013?

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, lawyer, and security expert who was partly responsible for former CIA official John Brennan not being made the Director of the CIA and forcing a UN investigation into the treatment of Bradley Manning. I called him up to...

On Wednesday a soldier, Lee Rigby, was fatally stabbed by two men sporting knifes and a meat cleaver. Before being shot by police, the attackers taunted onlookers, asking them to take photos and film their ideological rants. What followed was a media scramble, with reporters ferociously compiling tweets and smartphone footage in a desperate race to get news of the latest bout of alleged terrorism into the papers. But what does "terrorism" even mean any more?


Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, lawyer, and security expert who was partly responsible for former CIA official John Brennan not being made the director of the CIA and forcing a UN investigation into the treatment of Bradley Manning. I called him up to see if he thought the whole "terrorism" thing had just become a label used to exaggerate crime committed by Muslims.

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VICE: What do you think about the media reaction to the Woolwich murder?
Glen Greenwald: Media outlets reacted pretty uniformly to the attack. They reacted the way that media outlets typically do to these kinds of incidents, which is by simply stating that it was a terrorist attack and channeling outrage about the unprecedented, barbaric act that everyone saw take place.

Do you think it was a "terrorist" attack?
What the word terrorism typically means in reality, functionally, when it’s most commonly used by our media, is that the perpetrators are Muslim, and that they are driven by either religious or political motivations. I think that when it became clear that the perpetrators were Muslim (they said "Allah Akbar" during the attack), then media outlets instantly said that this was an act of terror, and politicians sort of did at the same time. The premise here is that if the violence is perpetrated by Muslims against the West, for a political cause, then by definition it’s terrorism, but not the other way around. It’s very typical to call this a terrorist attack without including all sorts of acts of violence that the US and UK has routinely engaged in over the last decade.


For example, the murder of a Muslim man by white supremacists this month. That wasn’t labeled "terrorism" by the press.
Right, even though hate crimes have very clearly ascertainable, political goals—they are designed to terrorize communities, to express all sorts of political sentiments—and yet very rarely do they get called terrorism. Even when you look at what Anders Behring Breivik did in Norway, it was a day-long frenzy by the western media insinuating that this was done by Islamic terrorists, and then as soon it was discovered that the person responsible wasn’t Muslim, the word terrorism kind of disappeared. This is even though he had an overt, political agenda that he was seeking to advance by violence and terror. I think that the word terrorism has almost exclusively become reserved for violence by Muslims.

And of course that change in meaning has a huge practical consequences. Normally bloody ones.
Yeah. It’s a term that’s used to justify all sorts of things: it sends people to prison; it’s used to target people for assassination; it is used to justify wars, to engage in secrecy. The fact that it’s basically [become] a one-sided term enables all kinds of really dubious actions on the side of the state.

Basically it empowers the state to do whatever it wants, because the term terrorism really does end our conversation. When media outlets bolster this very propagandist use of the term, what they’re really doing is enabling limitless state authority under the banner of "stopping the terrorists."


Terrorism has become a sort of shorthand for unmitigated evil. If all of the acts of violence towards us that occur get this label, but none of the acts of violence that we ourselves do to other people get the label, it just continuously bolsters the idea that our violence is justified, and we are civilized and noble, while they "over there" are primitive and brutal and evil. In the public’s mind it means that whatever we do to them is justified and necessary. It ruins the public debate.

What do you think will happen next?
It’s hard to predict. What’s amazing is that the war on terror has endured for 12 years now; at least if you mark the beginning as the September 11 attacks. And every single time there is a new successful attack, or new attempted attack, there’s always demand that more be done in the name of security and stopping "terrorism." It’s never the case that we get to the point where we say, okay, we’ve done enough in giving the state more power, in justifying more violence, in giving it more legal authority.

The concern is what's going to happen in terms of the government. The way in which there will be demands for legalization to put more surveillance on Muslim communities; laws to justify greater detention powers without charges; and then to raise public support for increasing acts of military violence in Muslim countries, even though that's what spawns the attacks in the first place. That’s the irony of the whole war on terror: that everything being done in the name of stopping terrorism is actually what fuels it.

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

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