Defining complex social phenomena is always a convoluted problem. Of course in the 'post-modern' era, where language games and linguistic subtitles are the life-blood of philosophy, definitions themselves become problematical. The very best work of modern philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, and Richard Rorty is really all about the problems of definition. But I digress.
Years ago I was at a pub with a friend who was a PhD student in sociology and who was writing his dissertation on the subject of cults in Britain. Being intellectually mischievous, I claimed that any distinctions between religions and cults were really just arbitrary and a matter of convenience. This led to considerable anger on his part because his entire PhD career hinged, in a sense, on his ability to make this distinction. But after a long conversion my friend had not, in my opinion, done anything to convince me that such distinctions are not, ultimately, driven by some underlying ideological purpose. In the final analysis, distinguishing between a cult and a religion is an exercise in arbitrariness. But these are the kinds of issues that you will very seldom see discussed in any kind of mainstream media. The failure on the part of the MSM is, in part, due to a fairly simple lack of intellectual capacity on the part of both the mainstream writers and broadcasters, and the North American audience. On the other hand, in Europe, and most particularly in France, you will see in-depth, philosophically sophisticated arguments in popular, widely circulated newspapers. Frighteningly, in Canada Rex Murphy seems to qualify as an intellectual.
I bring this up, of course, because of recent events in Halifax where the police allegedly thwarted a plot to commit a mass-shooting. The hapless Justice Minister Peter MacKay was at pains to clarify the meaning of this alleged conspiracy and told us this - "The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism." This statement offers an interesting change in the definition of 'terrorism' that is commonly used in our popular culture, particularly by the rightwing. By shifting the idea of terrorism away from 'political motivations' to 'cultural motivations,' the Harper government seems to be attempting to bolster their election strategy of being seen as religious crusaders and it contributes to the creation of fear amongst Canadians for 'the other.' By attempting to guide the public discourse away from political aspects of so-called 'terrorism' (as well as the political aspect of Harper's war as an election ploy), the HarperCons can tap into a much deeper and darker aspect of public fear, a fear that those in power have been exploiting since the time of the Crusades.
But there is a bit of cognitive dissonance here because for a very long time the popular definition of 'terrorism' has been overtly tired to politics. In fact, this morning on CBC they had an interview with some sort of 'expert' on the subject (I missed his name and qualifications) of terrorism, and he defined terrorism this way - 'the use of violence by political extremists.' And since the alleged plot in Halifax involved people who have been referred to as 'Neo-Nazis,' these events would be very clearly tied to a common notion of terrorism.
But what is interesting to me here is the degree to which a definition of terrorism can shift according to the political/ideological goals of the speaker, and the way that people are compelled to shift their definition so that they can continually brand others as terrorist while distancing their own efforts from being associated with such a notion. The Harper regime wants to associate terrorism with religious and cultural issues because it feeds their narrative of Canada being at war with a foreign group of religious fanatics. And if we associate a group of Nova Scotian Neo-Nazis with terrorism, that narrative is threatened because it politicizes the discourse. The same kind of problem recently arose in the U.S. where a man killed a three Muslims but was not branded by representatives of the State as a terrorist. It is vitally important for Western Governments to brand violent actions by non-white 'extremists' as terrorism, while avoiding that epithet being used in relation to Western caucasians engaged in the same kinds of violent acts. This is because the 'terrorist' must always be 'the other' in order for the notion to have the power to sway people with fear and make them support a political program of war.
But all of this shifting conceptual ground makes one wonder how do we keep a handle on the uses of the notion of 'terrorism' and of how those uses can influence political discourses and outcomes. Well I think it is actually pretty easy most of the time if we just remember that it is almost always a question of the perceived legitimacy of violence. Terrorism is almost always a label used by people to refer to acts of violence that they believe are illegitimate. A great example from contemporary events is the West's response to the coop in Ukraine. A year ago large numbers of Ukrainians, some of them armed and many of them with ties of fascists and ultra-nationalists, began occupying government buildings and calling for the overthrow of an elected president. Our leaders not only didn't refer to these insurgence as 'terrorists,' but they embraced them as legitimate political activists. However, if large numbers of Canadians, some of them armed, occupied the buildings on Parliament Hill and called for the overthrow of Harper they would be roundly referred to as terrorists and treated accordingly by our government. The Israeli government, with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, has been stealing Palestinian land for over half a century, bulldozing Palestinian homes, killing and imprisoning Palestinian people. But no Western leader has ever referred to the Israelis as terrorists for such acts. On the other hand, any act of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israel or other Western nations is continually referred to as terrorism. The distinction is solely one of perceived legitimacy. Terrorism is not really a thing in the world, rather it is a conceptual political tool used by leaders and political commentators to de-legitimize certain acts, and by association to legitimize other acts. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was not defensive and resulted in the deaths of around 500 thousand innocent civilians will never be referred to as an act of terrorism by Western leaders.
While we listen to our political leaders continually refer to acts by foreigners or so-called 'home-grown' religious extremists as terrorism, while referring to our own, often indiscriminate and usually ideologically motivated, acts of mass violence as nobel, just remember the issue of perceived legitimacy and think about the agenda of the speaker.