On September 11, the American public was bombarded by events and images that will haunt many of us forever. After the attack, however, we were then bombarded by a word that has since been cemented in the public consciousness to represent the crazy, irrational and violent: terrorist.
Long ago, a terrorist was simply someone that used terror as a means of gaining political leverage or control. Now, the simple mention of the word brings to mind images of wild-eyed crazies whose only mission is to destroy "us." Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who fit the bill exactly, but our overuse (and misuse) of the term has done lasting damage to our ability to think critically about what is happening to our country and to others abroad.
The nation clutched their pearls when rapper Lupe Fiasco famously declared earlier this year that, in his opinion, President Obama is a terrorist. Bill O’Reilly, one of Obama’s biggest conservative critics, even defended President Obama after the statement. Why? Because we have made "terrorists" into a discrete group of people who commit specific acts; typically the turban wearing variety that are handy with explosives. So, because Obama didn’t fit the description, Lupe Fiasco’s comments were simply disregarded as the ranting of “just another rapper.”
Our simplistic definition of the word also makes terrorism a lifetime gig. Who determined that if you are once a terrorist, you are forever a terrorist? After the U.S. found that there was actually no evidence of nuclear proliferation happening in Iraq, were the many insurgents and bombers that objected to their country being invaded still considered terrorists?
Nelson Mandela once said:
“I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.”
I am not so foolish to compare the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and others to Nelson Mandela, however, my point is that there is no single homogenous group called “the terrorists”; terror is a matter of perspective.
We shouldn’t sympathize with violent people, but it's time to free up the word terrorist and use it intelligently as a piece of vocabulary, not a name tag for certain people who think a certain way, look a certain way or have specific names.
The situation brings to mind a book about another tragic mislabeling we commit in our society. In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate suggests that since all addictions come from the same place neurologically, therefore, as a society, rather than criminalize drug abuse, we should treat the crack-head with the same respect as the shopaholic, who, although maintaining a job, is tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Instead, what happens is the shopaholic gets therapy and a debt counselor and the crackhead bounces between prison and crime on the streets. Thus, by ignoring and stereotyping the people that need the most attention, we only harm ourselves.
If we free our minds from the myopic definition of the word terrorist, and ask more questions about where the anger comes from, perhaps we would have a clearer dialogue with those that seek to harm us, rather than trying to converse by shouting at each other over the sound of landing shrapnel.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/GettyImages)