For word nerds like me, last week was big. Merriam-Webster released its 250 latest official English words and definitions. Among these are sriracha and onboarding, along with a new meaning and designation for pregame, which gains standing as a verb, meaning – and this won’t come as a surprise to any millennials – “to begin drinking alcohol before an event or activity (such as a party or a night out.)”
At the same time, Quebec’s French language watchdog, the office quebecois de langue française, also revised its dictionary, allowing English words, including hashtag, grilled-cheese and softball, into everyday francophone conversation in the province.
All this language talk has got me thinking about words and what’s behind them. I’ve never been one to accept that something is “just semantics,” believing instead that words have the potential to carry great power that must be respected.
I can think of no better example of this than the term “terrorism,” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”
The term is loaded. CBC’s Neil Macdonald characterizes it as “political invective, nothing more.” He adds, “It’s a great favourite of demagogues, widely accepted by audiences, and is almost always applied exclusively to the other, never to ourselves.”
Moreover, it is used to justify extreme responses on the part of the labellers. Don’t even get me started on President Trump and his vilification of all Muslims couched in rhetoric about “radical Islamic terrorism.”
But Trump isn’t alone. As I’ve watched unspeakable attack after attack of innocent civilians in Europe over the past couple of years, I have noticed that virtually without exception, the perpetrators of these attacks, deemed by political leaders to be terrorists, are gunned down rather than arrested.
Even in Canada, Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers was lauded and received a standing ovation in parliament for ending Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s Parliament Hill gun rampage by shooting him dead.
Without a doubt, in many, if not most, of these circumstances any attempt to arrest these criminals could have placed the public and law enforcement officials in excessive peril. And, I applaud and greatly appreciate the courage of those brave men and women who put their own lives in jeopardy to protect the rest of us.
However, I am concerned that the use of the label of terrorism is leading us in the west to tacitly accept a form of retributive “eye for an eye” enforcement that borders on vigilantism. Worse, it may be having unintended consequences that only perpetuate the very acts we are trying to quell – galvanizing forces that seek to unsettle progressive western values through random acts of indiscriminate violence. Who is the terrorist in their eyes? Who’s the freedom fighter?
This is nowhere more obvious than in the atrocities we are witnessing with the Rohingya in Myanmar. After decades of persecution by the Buddhist majority, a group of militants from Myanmar’s Muslim minority, under the direction of Saudi nationals, formed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). When hundreds of ARSA armed with machetes and guns staged a coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an army base on August 25, Myanmar’s army was quick to label the attacks as terrorism and the attackers as terrorists.
Did that descriptor give the military the moral authority to justify what has happened since – what many are calling ethnic cleansing? By labelling the ARSA attacks — perpetrated by only a tiny minorty of Myanmar Rohingya — terrorism, has the army justified the horrific acts of violence it has perpetrated? Acts that have forced almost half a million people to flee their scorched villages and their country for neighbouring Bangladesh.
Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar, who may be hiding behind the terrorism label to justify their hate and intolerance, seem to have forgotten this quote attributed to Buddha, “Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.” I wonder what Buddha would think about his disciples now.