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When Should We Label Something 'Terrorism'?

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the word "terrorism" was everywhere. The attacks themselves were immediately labeled terrorism, and the U.S. multiplied its efforts to find and root out terrorist groups, both at home and abroad. Thus, the U.S. War on Terror began.

Certainly the destruction of the Twin Towers constituted an act of terrorism. But in the years since, many have been vocal about the potential risks of using the term too broadly. The danger, some analysts argue, comes when communities, religious and ethnic groups, or even entire countries, get associated with or portrayed as terrorists, and then policed and surveilled as such.

Conversations about when and how to label something or someone a "terrorist" resurfaced at the beginning of 2021, when hundreds stormed the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6. So today, we're revisiting this piece from the beginning of the year about the stakes of the label terrorist.


What do you call the people who violently stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6? Rioters? Insurrectionists? Terrorists? After the attack, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used all three labels.

Linda Sarsour, a Muslim, Palestinian American activist with a huge social media following, tweeted, "This is domestic terrorism. Period," and Republican Rep. Nancy Mace from South Carolina also used the label "domestic terrorist" in a tweet.

Terrorist.

There's an ongoing debate about that term. People who think it's the most precise word to describe what happened on Jan. 6 say that pro-Trump mob fits a dictionary definition of a terrorist: a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter organizer and Pan-African studies professor at California State University, Los Angeles, uses "terrorism" to describe what we saw that day. "What they're attempting to do is terrorize," Abdullah says. "What they're attempting to do is elicit a response that comes out of fear." But Abdullah gets even more specific, calling the group "white supremacist terrorists."

"To use the term white supremacist terrorism helps us to unpack what it means to be a threat to the state," she argues. The terrorist label has been used against Black and Muslim-identified Americans as an excuse to surveil and criminalize those communities, she says, while what she calls "white supremacist terrorists" are organizing coup attempts on social media platforms with few repercussions.

But others who don't like the term say it does more harm than good.

Ramzi Kassem has long been a vocal critic of the "terrorist" label. Kassem runs a legal clinic at the City University of New York School of Law called CLEAR, where students and staff represent people who, according to Kassem, find themselves on the receiving end of the sprawling security state in the United States.

"If the FBI shows up at your home asking you questions about your organizing circle or what's being said at your mosque, CLEAR will represent you," Kassem says.

Kassem understands the urge to call last week's mob "terrorists." But instead of addressing an inequity, he says that could easily create the opposite effect: "It only serves to further empower those who are already in power, and it helps them expand their budgets to spy on, over-police and over-prosecute people of color."

Kassem cites historical examples of this, notably the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He says there's no disputing who was responsible: a white, right-wing man named Timothy McVeigh. Kassem says, "The very next year, there's a legislative response, and there are two laws that are passed: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and an immigration law called IIRA-IRA. Those laws have been used primarily against Black and immigrant folks in this country."

And many people share Kassem's concern that broadening the "terrorist" label will ultimately lead to more bad policing.

"I'm flexible," says Melina Abdullah, the Black Lives Matter organizer. "If somebody comes up with a term better than terrorism, great."

Until then, Abdullah says she'll continue to use "white supremacist terrorism" to refer to the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Because, to her, that's the most accurate language to describe what went down in Washington, D.C., that day.

She says words do matter, but that's not where she wants to leave this conversation.

"What we saw is how pervasive white supremacy is in this country. If we don't come up with our own systems, solutions, and our own re-imagined future and begin building toward that — I don't know if everybody heard this newly elected congresswoman who saw fit to quote Hitlerthat's going to be what's ushered in."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.