Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What Is a Terrorist?

I've always hated the cliche, "It's just a matter of semantics." We say that, of course, when we mean that a discussion is trivial worrying about defnitions instead of content, but semantics, the study of meaning, is quite difficult and important. It matters what we mean by words. If an act is genocide or not determines how we must act under law. If an act is murder or not is a matter of ethical concern.

A recent discussion is over the term "terrorist." There are soem who have branded Scott Roeder, the murderer of Dr. George Tiller, a terrorist, while others have strongly objected to the use of the term. It does seem to make a difference if we call the slaying an act of terrorism, an assassination, or simply a homocide. We are possibly going to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- a move with serious policy ramifications. Words matter. Meaning matters. Semantics matter.

So, the question is, what does the term "terrorist" mean? What makes something an act of terrorism?