Why is it that the violent attack by Hamas against Israel on 7 October 2023 is described as ‘terrorism’, but Israel’s violent assault on the Gaza Strip in response is not? Why is it that the killing and kidnapping of some people is almost universally described in the language of terrorism, but virtually identical actions by other actors are not? In this case, why is Hamas labelled a terrorist organisation, but Israel is not labelled a terrorist state?
This is not just a question of semantics. The use of certain words or phrases is important because they help us to understand the world. Even more important, language also shapes the way policymakers respond to real-world events. Words, therefore, can have material consequences.
Since 9/11 and the launch of the global war on terrorism, the invocation of the term ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ can result in serious and far-reaching repercussions. For individuals, it can result in being placed on a no-fly list, the loss of basic civil liberties, imprisonment, rendition, or torture. It can even result in execution without trial by drone strike. For groups or movements, it can result in financial penalties, censure, loss of license, dissolution, or banning. In other instances, employing the terrorism label can mean the denial of humanitarian assistance in areas purportedly under control of ‘terrorist’ groups, the suspension of peace talks with groups labelled as ‘terrorist’, or the imposition of financial and other sanctions on states, regions, or entire populations. [Continue reading…]