MEHTA: The semantics of “terror”

Watching footage of twin blasts ripping across a city block and sending plumes of dense grey smoke to scale the skyscrapers felt a bit too familiar. Seeing a mass of people frantically search for some semblance of safety was almost dizzying. Twelve years had done little to dampen the worst feelings of déjà vu on Monday. We did not need anyone to tell us that the scene on Boylston Street was one of terror.

And yet President Obama’s decision to do exactly that on Tuesday morning is significant in the way that we, as a country, will process, reflect and respond to the Boston bombings.

The President waited 21 hours before labeling the horrific events that transpired at the finish line of the Boston Marathon as “an act of terror,” after deliberately choosing to omit any reference to “terror” in his speech immediately following the attack. Obama’s hesitation to apply the term to a scene of carnage and fear that clearly merited being described as such is a reminder of the sharp political implications and social connotations that accompany the word. While our hearts quickly jumped back and forth between the present and 9/11 upon viewing the images of a broken Boston, Obama’s declaration has granted our imaginations license to do the same.

9/11 brought the concept of “terror” to the forefront of the public consciousness, where it has remained lodged for more than a decade. Descriptions of a violent, fundamentalist, Middle Eastern, Islamic jihad against all things America have dominated the narrative about “terror,” and a global war on terror has found itself concentrated in a region and on groups whose demographics fit the same bill. The concept of “terror” in contemporary America exists in a narrowly defined space. Its edges are marked as much by the actor and the motivating ideology as they are the act itself.

Our de facto consensus definition of the term explains why tragedies that involve a mentally ill gunman in Newtown, a lone-wolf graduate student in Aurora or a white supremacist in Oak Creek do not qualify as acts of “terror” despite how “terrifying” they were. The trauma of 9/11 has attached itself so firmly to our public understanding of “terror” that ascribing the term to other events automatically conjures up our reactions, thoughts and beliefs from 12 years ago and projects them upon the present.

President Obama fully understood the gravity and ramifications of describing Monday’s explosions as an “act of terror.” He knew that the word “terror” could drive us to act irresponsibly: in response to “terror” our nation had previously transformed an entire ethnicity of people into a suspicious class; our government had resorted to torture tactics in the name of security (a disclosure the New York Times ran directly below headlines on Obama’s speech about Boston).

But Obama also knew that the word “terror” could propel us towards unity: Facing “terror,” heroic men and women had previously sacrificed their lives to protect one another and came together to support fragile communities. Hoping to invoke the solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11, the President reminded us in his speech about the kindness, generosity and selflessness that mark the American refusal to be terrorized.

The wounds from Monday are still fresh. The shock remains. The bombings were truly an act of terror. And though we cannot (nor should we) overcome the short-circuit that pushes our thoughts from Boston to New York, from April 15 to Sept. 11, from one “act of terror” to another, we can draw from our experience dealing with past “terror” as we begin to put the pieces back together.

We don’t know enough about what happened in Boston to make full sense of the event. It is easy to fall back upon our old beliefs and prejudices about what constitutes an “act of terror” to fill in the gaps in our understanding. In doing so, we risk to repeat the same mistakes and display the same biases from a decade ago. We are better served remembering that “terror” is best faced together.

Aseem Mehta is a junior in Branford College. This semester, he is working in Brussels, Belgium. Contact him at aseem.mehta@yale.edu  .

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