The language of terror

Moving off social media briefly (although I’ll be back onto the topic in the next few posts), yesterday’s ‘bombing’ [1] got me wondering how I would have covered the event if I’d still been in Exeter, specifically in regard to the word “terror”.

I’ve written before how unimpressed I am when the T-word is thrown around, and while there’s more justification for using it in relation to yesterday’s event, there’s still some debate to be had.

Judging by a cursory glance at the newspaper front pages this morning [2] you’d have though Devon’s capital had seen event’s comparable to 7/7 as opposed to some bloke doing a bit of damage to his face [3]. Now, putting on a pedant’s hat for a minute here, a terrorist is somebody who creates terror. Judging by eyewitness accounts from the various sources I checked yesterday, Exeter may have been ill at ease but certainly by no means terrorised. Quite the opposite, in fact, when you’ve got people laughing at the attempt.

Being serious again, terrorism is notoriously difficult to pin down to an exact definition. As Primal Scream sang, “One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist”. There are acts, generally (unfortunately) of mass murder that once they’ve occurred can be classed as terrorism. But what of a lone bomber or gunman? They create terror, are they a terrorist? And more to the point, does a man with a bomb who explodes it in his face without injuring anybody count as a terrorist if nobody is terrorised? A potential terrorist, yes, but that’s getting into an even broader category.

I’ve got an aversion to using words like terrorist and other hyperbole in relation to small-scale local incidents [4] where it’s difficult to qualify exactly what’s being dealt with in the story. These words always feel forced and even lazy.

There are better, more accurate, synonyms that could be used. In this case, bomber, or alleged bomber, fit perfectly and narrow the description down. It also avoids attaching greater kudos and importance to the actions than absolutely necessary, which already strikes a small blow at any would-be terrorist. Being a bomber is a lot less glamorous than a purveyor of terror.

[1] And much as I hate scare quotes, this is one occasion they’re done justice.

[2] Having difficulty finding links to these, especially the Sun.

[3] Ok, I know it could have been a lot more serious but the end result shows this was a woefully laughable attempt to create terror.

[4] And while it can’t have been pleasant initially for those caught up in it, it was just that: a small scale local incident, in the context of things.

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