Defining Terrorism

I went to the dictionary the other day, looked up the word "terrorism." It is, says the latest edition of the American Heritage, "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons."

So, let’s see: Did those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon do so unlawfully? Yes; no war had been declared. Were those who did the attacking organized? Yes; they were precise in their timing and brutal in their efficiency. Did they attack people or property? Both. Was the intent to intimidate or coerce? Both. Were the reasons ideological or political? Both.

The case, then, seems to be solid. What happened in New York City and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001 was terrorism, even if you define the term loosely, even if you rely on Webster’s or Random House or another dictionary for a definition.

Yet about two weeks ago, Reuters—the highly respected international news service—decided that it would no longer use the word "terrorism" to describe the unholy deeds of Sept. 11, nor would it refer to those who perpetrated them as "terrorists." Why? To paraphrase the official corporate explanation, because one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and who is Reuters to color the news by taking sides?

What kind of dictionary are they using at Reuters? What kind of language emasculation are they practicing, and to what end? What kind of mockery are they making of the notion of impartial reporting?

It is not often that the panelists on Fox News Watch, who are the very model of cultural diversity, agree on anything. But from Jeff Cohen to Jim Pinkerton—and believe me, that is almost two different cultures—the verdict was unanimous: the attackers were terrorists; the word is used precisely; the Reuters decision not to use it deserves the censure of decent men and women, and the scorn of other journalists, the world around.

Ostensibly, Reuters is trying to be objective, or claiming that is the goal of its policy. But without truth, objectivity is a sham, and the truth of the Sept. 11 attacks is that at least 6,000 people were murdered, people from 81 countries, people who in no direct way either caused or perpetuated the grievances of their murderers—people who, in other words, were innocent.

Innocent: "not guilty of a specific crime or offense; legally blameless." (The American Heritage Dictionary.)

And so what Reuters has done is decide that the murder of thousands of legally and ethically blameless human beings is an event subject to interpretation. Some people might think of it as terrorism, some might think of it as freedom fighting; six of one, half a dozen of the other, take your pick. Reuters will make no judgments, cast no stones, stake out a position on the high, neutral ground.

Except that it hasn’t. By refusing to describe accurately the events of Sept. 11, by eschewing the principles of reasoning for those of moral relativism, by substituting for "terrorism" in its reports such phrases as "hijacked plane attacks," "suicide attacks" and "suicide hijackers," Reuters has staked out a position on the terrorists’ ground. It has given those who lost their lives a measure of culpability in their deaths, for one who dies at the hands of freedom fighters is, by definition, an opponent of freedom. It has given murderers the benefit of the doubt. It has given journalism a bad name.

Reuter: "to carry objectivity to such an extent that it becomes perverted, and thus becomes, to an unconscionable degree, its opposite: subjectivity." (Common sense.)

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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