On Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 around 3 p.m., a truck driving down West Street in lower Manhattan at a speed of about 60 mph swerved off the main road onto the bike lane and into a group of pedestrians. Eight people were killed and at least 12 were injured in a style of attack that has become far too familiar recently in mainstream news. The media went crazy. Politicians looked for someone to blame. People were scared. And that’s where the danger begun to creep in.
Even though very little was known about the incident, mainstream outlets such as CNN and the New York Times started calling it “a terror attack” from the very beginning. On Tuesday afternoon President Trump also referred to it as the “New York City terrorist attack.” On Wednesday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was quoted as saying that “there’s no evidence that suggests a wider plot or wider scheme.” Up to this point officials assumed the attacker was working alone and not as part of a group.
This incident occurred on the day of Halloween. Students were getting out of school on the same street where these people were killed. Residents of the area were stocking up their homes to welcome children who were going to trick or treat. No one saw this coming and, when it did, no one knew how to cope with it. This tragedy was a profound shock to the community, turning people’s lives upside down and putting everyone in a state of panic.
When we get scared we have an intuitive urge to seek explanations. In our moments of panic those explanations don’t really need to be justified, they don’t always make sense and they are not very well fleshed out. All we really need is something to make us feel like we can control the unpredictable. That we have the power to prevent this type of thing from happening again, from happening to us, from happening to those we love. Because the truth is, it could have been any one of us walking down West Street on that Tuesday afternoon.
Unexceptionally, this latest incident was immediately framed as an act of religious extremism. People started looking at Sayfullo Saipov’s background, at the fact that he came to the United States from Uzbekistan, that he entered the country legally through the diversity visa lottery. The President lashed out against the lottery system and vouched stricter screening processes, as if people entering the country through a lottery system are not vetted. As if we have forgotten that most of the recent attacks on US soil were carried out by the citizens of this country, not by foreign nationals. As if there will ever be a means to prevent senseless acts of violence from happening.
On Wednesday, Nov. 1 at around 6 p.m., the US Attorney’s Office announced that Sayfullo Saipov was charged with “federal terrorism offenses”. Over the next few days more and more details began to surface and the authorities now believe that the incident was indeed an act of terror, organized over the course of over a year. They think Saipov was working with others and that he was inspired by ISIS to carry out these attacks.
But that’s not the point. The terms discussed previously had been in circulation since Tuesday afternoon. Calling this incident a terror attack at that time was premature and unjustified. In spite of what we may now know, at that time we did not have enough information to be able to call it an act of terror. And if we have learned anything from reading George Orwell’s 1984, taking classes on authoritarianism or even following recent events in the United States under the current administration, it is that language is instrumental in shaping how we view the world.
Adopting the language that is fed to us repeatedly and continuously is not an easy thing to avoid. It is easy to talk about the “terror attack” when you know that everyone will immediately know what you’re referring to. Trying to come up with a perhaps more appropriate term might require an additional sentence or two to clarify what you’re discussing. The language we use is important, even when it’s inconvenient for us to make a conscious effort to choose our words. Especially when it takes a conscious effort for us to choose our words. As Professor Snyder points out in his book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”, making an active effort to use your own vocabulary is an incredibly powerful political act and one that is all the more relevant in Trump’s America where buzzwords are a prominent policy tool.
Being lazy with our words is one small step away from being lazy with our thoughts. The words we use become the thoughts that we develop, which in turn get channeled into the conversations we have that influence those around us. So next time you read a news headline, or hear about a noteworthy incident from a friend, just take a minute to make sure you know enough about it before you put a label on it.
Sophia Catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org .