When Does a Militant Become a Terrorist?

An article that appeared in The New York Times this week led with the following milestone of journalistic ambivalence:

“Islamist militants shot down an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula with a surface-to-air missile over the weekend, raising new alarms about the terrorist insurgency that developed there in response to the military takeover last summer.”

Are they militants or are they terrorists? Hard to tell.

We are used to news organizations shifting from militant to terrorist in the coverage of different events and groups, however dubious the distinctions may be. (For example: “Hamas officials shrugged off the support offered by al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, saying that the Palestinian militant group has a different ideology than the terror network and won election through a moderate approach to Islam.” – AP)

But using militant, terrorist (and insurgency) to describe the same people in the same sentence is something new, at least for us.

What lies behind this latest increment of terminological confusion?

The euphemistic use of the word militant for terrorist has been with us for a long time, blurring the distinction between those who perpetrate violence indiscriminately against civilian populations to advance their cause, and political activists who are merely combative or aggressive in character. It is the difference between, say, a noisy picket line and a suicide bomber boarding a bus. Or a person chanting angry slogans and somebody launching a rocket at a school full of children.

The use of palatable stand-ins for terrorist — including insurgent, fighter, resistance fighter, assailant, activist and more — does not necessarily derive from sympathy for the killer of innocents, though there is plenty of sympathy around for Palestinian and other terrorists.

Sometimes it is the result of intimidation, a dirty secret of the relationship between the various terrorist organizations and the journalists who write about them. A reporter on the ground in Gaza City knows better than to refer to “Hamas terrorists,” lest he be expelled from the Hamas enclave, or something worse happen to him.

Journalists explain that they use such terms for professional reasons — to avoid making value judgments, or inaccurate statements when the identity or motive of the attacker is uncertain.

There is some validity to such arguments. It would be irresponsible to brand someone a terrorist without sufficient evidence. In such situations, journalists are right to be cautious. But when the subject is self-evidently terrorist, like Hamas or Hizbullah, such circumspection becomes suspect.

For example, Reuters explains that “as part of a long-standing policy to avoid the use of emotive words, we do not use terms like ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ unless they are in a direct quote or are otherwise attributable to a third party. We do not characterize the subjects of news stories but instead report their actions, identity and background so that readers can make their own decisions based on the facts.”

Of course, to identify a gun-carrying member of Hamas or Hizbullah as a militant is to characterize him, and in a misleading way. The avoidance of clear labels creates obfuscation. It is disengenuous of Reuters to assert that it is merely presenting the unadorned, unemotive facts, upon which their readers can base their decisions.

Inconsistencies abound. There have been numerous instances when news organizations have rescinded one of these euphemisms, either on their own or in response to criticism. Thus, militant might appear in a story on Tuesday, and in the same story be changed to terrorist by Wednesday, or appear one way in the print edition and another in the online version.

Whatever the motives, honorable or dishonorable, the effect of euphemistic language is pernicious. It grants a certain legitimacy to the murderers of innocent people. For militancy in the service of a cause (purportedly just) is seen as legitimate; whereas terrorism is not something that anyone wishes to support or associate with. That is why terrorist leaders themselves, who know this, employ the same euphemisms. Their own people are freedom fighters, while Israeli security forces engaged in thwarting the next brutal assault on its citizens are accused of perpetrating “state terrorism.”

So, to try to answer our question: When does a militant become a terrorist? When he crashes a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center? When he plants a bomb in the Moscow subway? Maybe also when he fires a rocket from Gaza into southern Israel?

Maybe it’s when the contradictions inherent in the euphemistic coverage of terrorists become so insupportable that they are abandoned altogether in favor of honest language and fair coverage.