“Terrorist” Rhetoric Makes Us All Less Safe

“Terrorism” is a term that lumps everyday Palestinians and Nelson Mandela in with ISIS and white supremacists. Is it time to retire it?

Dayton Martindale



1. There’s actually no agreed upon definition 

2. Sometimes it just means resistance that the powerful don’t like

Any expression of solidarity with the Palestinian civilian victims … is being perceived as support for terror or a terrorist organization.” 

Hassan Jabareen, general director of the human rights group Adalah

Isn’t that second definition a bit, uh, cynical?

That’s exactly the problem: Terrorism” is used so inconsistently that it has become little more than a scary label. In 2005, according to the FBI, the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat was animal rights activists — a group that damaged property and broke into research labs but probably did not merit a government crackdown. 

Repressive governments have also used the label to describe armed resistance groups, such as the anti-apartheid African National Congress. Nelson Mandela remained on U.S. terrorist watchlists until 2008.

That seems like a mistake.

Any term that lumps Nelson Mandela in with ISIS and white supremacists probably obfuscates more than it illuminates. 

What’s more, calling someone a terrorist can seemingly justify anything. In the early 2000s, the U.S. government claimed Saddam Hussein had connections to al Qaeda. In the stark logic of the War on Terror, this made Iraq an enemy nation: As Bush said after 9/11, Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” 

We now know that Hussein had no ties to al Qaeda, but that didn’t stop the United States from killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and plunging Iraq into civil war. Of course, nothing the United States does counts as terrorism.”

Which takes us to Israel and Palestine, where pro-war voices in the United States, Israel and elsewhere have accused journalists, civilians and antiwar activists of supporting (or even being) terrorists — all to justify Israel’s disproportionate response to the October 7 attacks.

Can we start using terrorism” more accurately?

Some government definitions stress that the term refers to violence carried out for political motives. Ironically, the term is often invoked to obscure underlying political context. 

As Hamilton Nolan cautions in a recent essay: Once the public is told that something falls under the umbrella of terror,’ they are subconsciously relieved of the need to understand it.” And if we want to prevent political violence, we must do the hard work of understanding its causes. 

Understanding something does not excuse it. But a simplistic narrative of good guys versus terrorists” won’t solve the violence — and often leads to more of it.

Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Journal, Harbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.