The Continuing Cheapening of the Word "Terrorism"

Illegally diverting water is terrorism:

South Australian Premier Mike Rann says the diversion of water from the Paroo River in Queensland is an act of terrorism during a water crisis.

Anonymously threatening people with messages on playing cards, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, is terrorism:

Giles County deputies arrest two county teenagers they say made terroristic threats to people on playing cards.

Investigators say 18-year olds Brian Stafford and Justin Dirico left eight threatening playing cards at the Pearisburg Wal-Mart on Saturday, August 9th. The cards read “9 people will die” and “9 people will suffer” with the date 8-15-08.

A ninth card was found on a car at the Dairy Queen on Sunday, August 10th.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before.

EDITED TO ADD (8/26): In the UK, walking on a bicycle path is terrorism.

Posted on August 18, 2008 at 11:39 AM43 Comments


Matthew Schinckel August 19, 2008 7:00 AM

Aargh. Our premier is a dimwit. As a (normally) proud South Australian, I admit he is foolish. (At least he is better than his treasurer, who, I kid you not, failed Economics at school…)

Bernie August 19, 2008 7:00 AM

Be careful, Bruce, someone might accuse you of terrorism for writing blog posts like this one.

(I mean in a half funny, half real way.)

Chris Samuel August 19, 2008 7:08 AM

Part of me agrees with you, and part of me considers this to just be the way that English develops over time.

You could consider this to be similar to the way that the impact of certain swear words has changed over the years; some of the ones we take for granted now were seen as unacceptable not that long ago – viz the fact that bloody was controversial on UK TV in the 60’s but these days gets used in Harry Potter films.

Jason August 19, 2008 7:17 AM

Are we continuing to knowingly harbor those teenagers who are a terrorist threat to others?

CJ August 19, 2008 7:21 AM

[pedant mode on]
Aarg, “terroristic”. That’s not a word – adjective of terrorism is terrorist (even though it happens to be the noun, too).

It’s like racialism, instead of racism. And racialistic, instead of racist. There’s no need to add suffixes onto words just to make them look more impressive.
[pedant mode off]

Anonymous August 19, 2008 7:27 AM

“Giles County deputies arrest two county teenagers they say made terroristic threats to people on playing cards.”

As you note, there was an extensive discussion on this back in April:

The language “terroristic threat” is common throughout the USA, and has existed for decades. The imputation it is related to “terrorism” as we know it today is incorrect, though understandable. A quick note to WSLS may fix their article. But how can we fix the law?

bzelbob August 19, 2008 7:42 AM

This is like part of the blurb for Bruce’s new book:
‘What happens when “wrong” gets redefined?’

This is, I think, one of THE most important questions of our age.

Obviously, when we can’t find enough “real” terrorists, we shall simply keep changing the definition until we have enough to justify our budgets and authorities.

Remember, there are people out there who view anything out of the ordinary as terrorism, say the smell of burning chili peppers…

frog51 August 19, 2008 8:23 AM

Didn’t the US call them ‘commies’ back in the old days. There will always be a word, and it will always be misused…because people will always be morons.

matt a August 19, 2008 8:32 AM

And if those 2 teenagers had shot up Walmart on 8-15, those Giles County deputies would look incredibly inept for not arresting these kids and preventing it. It doesn’t sound like these 2 kids had their heads on straight anyways…How would this have differed if these kids had left a letter in Walmart saying 9 people would die on 8-15. I suspect they would still be in custody facing same charges….

Paeniteo August 19, 2008 8:47 AM

@matt: It is not about whether the authorities would have had to act on the information (one may argue about this, too), but rather whether those kids are to be labelled as “terrorists”.

Chris August 19, 2008 9:08 AM

As others have pointed out, ‘terroristic’ is not the same thing as ‘terrorism’. The former is an act intended to create terror in the victim, the latter is an attempt to use terror TO EFFECT POLITICAL CHANGE. Very different intents even though the specific actions may be similar. But the words sound similar and a lot of people confuse them, even people who should know better.

I’m reminded of the guy who had to resign from his position as an aide to a the mayor of Washington D.C. because people took offense at his use of the word ‘niggardly’. It means ‘stingy’ or ‘miserly’, but a lot of people were convinced it meant something else and could not be dissuaded.

CameraMan August 19, 2008 9:16 AM

I move we discontinue use of the term “terrorist” in favorof the term
bad guy”. In fact, if I recall GI Joe correctly, the term “bad guy” can apply to male and female terrorists equelly.

All in favor?

naMaremaC August 19, 2008 9:22 AM

How about we call them “good guy”. After all. In the grand scheme of things “we” are as likely to go to hell for our point of view as we think they are.

CameraMan August 19, 2008 9:27 AM


I think we should stick to semantic discussions regarding to labeling people who want to blow us up and so forth and save the thelogical semantic descussions for another blog, kay?

matt a August 19, 2008 10:20 AM

@Paeniteo – Who cares what these two are labeled? Am I supposed to feel sorry for them? We aren’t talking about 11 year olds here playing with toy guns but 18 yr olds leaving death threats in a wal-mart then at a local restaurant. If you were the local authority and all you had was that the same type of threats showing up in multiple establishments, how should they react? Are there more notes in other businesses not found? How many people are involved? What kind of weapons might be used? Should the authorities alert local businesses (which is the equiv to announcing it on a bull horn in a small community)? I’m sure they react as it might be a terrorist or organized assault situation. Its up to the local authorities to determine if their actions were terrorist activities or not. I don’t see the difference between somebody calling in a bomb threat to multiple businesses and someone leaving messages at multiple businesses promising mass murder. I noticed that the article doesn’t actual say what they are actually charged with and that could have a lot to do with how serious the situation was percieved. I would with-hold judgement and snickering until the govt has made their case at trial as to the seriousness of this situation.

brasscount August 19, 2008 10:26 AM

Wait a second, this is a terror threat, in that it was designed to inspire terror in its victims. This goes beyond a mere assault by threat. If they had simply blown up nine people then posted their responsibility on a website in arabic this would have been an act of terror.

Think of the community as a microcosm, the geek fanboys who planted these cards acted to inspire fear in their oppressors, the ruling clique. How is this different than the PLO telling Israel that the bombing will continue until Palestine is freed?

Other than one is ideology vs state, and the other is idiot vs clique?

Anonymous August 19, 2008 10:31 AM


You have to be careful making those anti-semantic comments, someone might think you’re from Giles county.

Clive Robinson August 19, 2008 10:39 AM

@ Bruce,

Although I would probably agree (based on press reports only) that Mr Rann is a little silly in his choice of words,

“Illegally diverting water is terrorism”

Historicaly the statment is true.

Even befor the word “terrorist” was first applied to nations, the control of a water supply has been used as a method of applying political presure on people who are dependent on it.

As Maggie Thatcher (British PM at time of the negotiations) pointed out the British position in Hong Kong was untenable because China controled the water supply and could “simply turn off the tap” to get what they wanted.

Likewise Israel has been accused of applying preasure by turning off services to the Palistinians (having previously bombed the Palistinian capability of providing the services themselves out of existance).

In the very near future “water rights” may yet again become a primary motivator for nations to go to war in areas such as the Middle East and North East Med.

Naught August 19, 2008 11:01 AM

As has been pointed out again and again in comments to this posting and in comments to other postings on this site, “terroristic threat” is a legal term that existed well before the current War on Terror. It seems to me to be a reasonable term to describe the anonymous death threats made by the aforementioned 18 year olds. What term would others prefer? Happy happy fun time threat?

George August 19, 2008 11:14 AM

This is just the phenomenon I predicted after John Ashcroft masterfully exploited 9/11 to enact a collection of law enforcement wish lists called the “Patriot Act.” When “terrorism” becomes justification for officials to grant themselves “emergency” powers that circumvent legal and constitutional constraints, “terrorism” will proliferate like toadstools after a rain shower. Everything from parking violations and graffiti to unauthorized music downloads becomes “terrorism,” justifying whatever draconian “counter-terrorism” measures officials want to institute.

Anonymous August 19, 2008 11:20 AM

Naught: “Happy happy fun time threat?”

The “terroristic” is unnecessary, in the manner that “deadly murder” is a redundancy. Scaling of the fear goes with ability and motivation, not the simple words or ideological intent.

In Canada (and elsewhere) these nitwits would be charged with simple “uttering threats”:

No terroristic or other useless modifiers are required.

Clive Robinson August 19, 2008 11:28 AM

@ Naught,

‘As has been pointed out again and again in comments to this posting and in comments to other postings on this site, “terroristic threat” is a legal term that existed well before the current War on Terror. It seems to me to be a reasonable term to describe the anonymous death threats… What term would others prefer? ‘

That is a good question.

It is the over and incorect use of the word “terrorist” over a number of years in sound bites that has diminished not just it but all similar sounding words such as “terroristic”.

I will be honest with you that I do not remember hearing “terroristic threat” being used by law enforcment officers or their representatives to the press prior to rcent times.

Which makes me think that although being used correctly it is being used deliberatly for it’s apparent news worthy ness by those who might be seeking re-election or advancment into a political position.

My own prefrence would be to stick with the good old “criminal threats” as this makes a more accurate impression with the audiance.

After all even those individuals we wish (incorrectly) to call “terrorists” are plain and simply carrying out criminal activities just like any other.

Do we actually want to give them status simply because their purpose is political as oposed to any other gain?

What is the net result when they are convicted, they gain the apparent mantel of “Hero of the cause” and act as a rallying flag for others of similar intent to recruit with.

Perception is most deffinatly a double edged sword and those that wield it should be mindfull that their use may be the dullest edge.

2BFrayed August 19, 2008 12:21 PM

Money muddles everything. Add power, which tars everything. Add the media, you’re feathered.
The fox then eats well.
Power taken through terroristic cheapening is frighteningly easy…

Bernie August 19, 2008 1:48 PM

I give up. “Terrorism” is now a meaningless word. Just like “free” and “guarantee.”

Want the 25% more free? You’ve got to buy the rest of the bag of dog food.

A 2 year guarantee does NOT mean your new TV will last for 2 years; it means that your new TV will be replaced or repaired if it breaks within 2 years. I keep imagining bandages that are “Guaranteed Sterile or we will replace your amputated finger (but, you will still have to pay for shipping & handling).”

Anonymous August 19, 2008 2:27 PM

“Soon, causing mild discomfort will be terrorism.”

And when the discomfortists unite, we are all doomed.

Davi Ottenheimer August 19, 2008 2:45 PM

This is starting to feel like the cracker/hacker argument.

These linguistic battles are lost before they even begin, as people rarely use terms in a manner tied to concepts of technical accuracy.

Only in cases of real personal risk does accuracy in language achieve a more tangible balance, and even then the voice of reason often loses against the mob.

Remember the case of against Derek Bentley?

“it is widely believed that the reason the police attributed the quote to Bentley is that there was a similar case where someone had said ‘Let him have it!’, and it was still fresh in the police officers’ minds”

The word terrorist is very fresh in minds today…

George Orwell - What is Fascism? August 19, 2008 7:14 PM

“It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

Sam Stanley August 20, 2008 3:33 AM

Geez, people…get a grip! Language isn’t static.

I can think of several examples where I’ve heard variations on “terroristic” in the past few days.

On the news: “It was a terroristical attack”
Reporter at a press conference: “Sir, terroristically speaking, is there a danger to civilians?”
At a crime scene: “I’m with the new DHS counter-terroristicalitarianism unit”

It’s so good, it’s terroristicaliscious…

TonyH August 20, 2008 2:43 PM

That’s OK – we now have an almost uncountable number of ‘heroes” to deal with all the terrorists.

As a former journalist, I’m galled by the way everything or everyone is a hero, a terrorist, a disaster, a tragedy – in fact, I’ve been galled enough to divide in three parts!

So much for a sense of scale – it’s just too temptingly easy to deal in extremes.

Rhialto August 26, 2008 11:13 AM

Threat? What threat? Did no-one die or suffer on the mentioned dates? Of course they (some) did. Far more than just 9, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue.

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