Westminster Attacks: The Danger Of Labels

On the 22nd of March, an individual drove his car into pedestrians on Westminster bridge, before stabbing to death a police officer outside Westminster palace.

This description has purposefully been kept extremely factual and objective to contrast it with the subjective labeling used by many media outlets. The initial questions included: Was this a terrorist attack? Did the perpetrator act alone? London has long been preparing for a terrorist event after the spate of attacks in Paris. Some media outlets have labeled this an instance of “terrorism” while others have simply referred to it as an attack. The outlets which classified this as terrorism did so quickly after hearing of the attacker’s religious beliefs. There is a significant danger in this practice.

The use of the label “terrorist” or “terrorism” is an extremely potent force that should be carefully regulated, as it can be mismanaged and exploited by governments as a political and ideological tool to categorize their enemies. However, this is a difficult task because there is no one set, agreed upon definition of terrorism. The term “terrorist” has had a harmful effect since 9/11 and the “war on terror”, by automatically linking terrorism to Islam in people’s minds. This comes as a result of stereotyping in the news, media and popular entertainment, which has perpetuated Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslim communities. However, it has also been leveraged by Western governments to achieve domestic and foreign goals. In particular, the implementation of the US Patriot Act has allowed the US government to curtail the civil liberties of those seen to be against big government or big business. The labeling of environmental activists as “eco-terrorists” illustrates this fact. This is extremely worrisome as it is a slippery slope. It will continue until the label of “terrorist” and the accompanying punishments has instilled such fear within the population that it has allowed the creation of a totalitarian state.

I argue that in order to prevent these “terrorist attacks” they must be examined on a case by case basis, rather than automatically jumping to a conclusion due to factors, such as the attackers belief system. If attacks are committed by a Muslim, they seem to automatically gain the label of “terrorism”. For example, the 2015 San Bernardino shootings could just as easily have been classified as a workplace shooting. The problem stems from popular media and its vicious cycle, which has created its own categories to qualify an event as terrorism. This not only lowers the standards of classifying future events as terrorist attacks, but can also influence the government’s classification system. This cycle needs to be broken as it only promotes the ideological goals of terrorist groups, by spreading fear and the belief that the Western civilization is inherently incompatible with Islam. This is reinforced by the common argument that recent events are “terrorist attacks” due to the fact that a group such as ISIS has claimed responsibility for it. It is in the interest of ISIS to do so, as this is a simple way to further the group’s goals and spread propaganda. However, the weakness of this claim can be demonstrated by the fact that ISIS has claimed responsibility for such a wide range of attacks, that it seems implausible that they have had a role in all.

In conclusion, in order to reclaim the term terrorism as an objective category that deserves a response of equal measure, such categorization should be recognized as one of the strongest weapons in the war against terrorism, and one which could cause real harm or have a reverse effect. It then follows that it should not be applied prematurely and out of fear. Instead, it should be used objectively and with a mind to the future repercussions inherent within it.

Ross Field

Currently studying a MSc in Security Studies at University College London