Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Terror, redefined

New U.S. Unit to Release Terror Data

by Mary Louise Kelly

All Things Considered, July 5, 2005 · The new National Counter-Terrorism Center is to deliver a comprehensive accounting of terrorist incidents worldwide. The government's release of similar data in the past has sparked controversies over its procedures and accuracy.

* Any time government involves itself in etymology we must sit up and take notice.

"Terrorism" of late has been the ultimate slippery signifier, functioning not so much on the principle of differánce -- in which a sign assumes its meaning by excluding other meanings -- but by its seeming all-inclusivity. The terrorist threat against the U.S. is made out to be an amorphous, inscrutable force, comprehensible only to the highest officials who identify it and thereby shape its meaning. [We need only look as far as (albeit overblown) reports of Condie Rice applying the label to teachers who opposed No Child Left Behind.]

Now the National Counter-Terrorism Center has expanded its own definition of terrorism, allowing itself to report almost 2,500 more incidents than it could under its own definition.

The cynic in me can't help but wonder: Like Enron and the rest, are they padding their numbers? That may be a bit of a stretch -- after all, I don't think any questioning of such a counter-terrorist center's usefullness could, in this political climate, be taken seriously. The NCTC doesn't need to justify its existence to the people that hold its purse strings. But to others?

The center now reports there were 3,194 terroist attacks last year. Under it's old definition, there were only 651 reported for exact same time period.

Officials say contrasting the old and new numbers would be like comparing apples and oranges, because the definition of a terrorist attack is now much broader and more inclusive. The old definition, it is reported, involved a great deal of arbitrariness. Perhaps, but it's interesting that this arbitrariness proves to be more exclusive and the clarification more inclusive, rather than the other way round.

Also interesting is that the new definition ignores Pres. Bush's recent comparison between insurgent forces in Iraq and terrorists. This was no doubt a procedural decision -- the U.S. Military will keep track of its own encounters with the enemy, and everything else is to be monitored by the NCTC.

But it also keeps terrorism strictly in the public domain, despite Bush's efforts to make it universal in nature. Terrorists only attack civilians -- civilians of any nationality, of course -- not troops. Troops fight insurgents. This preserves the necessary divide and affects a sort of downgrading of the enemy. Against civilians the enemy is a terrorist, one who causes terror. Against the military, which is naturally immune to fear, the enemy is a lowly insurgent.

A year from now, last year's terrorism figures and this year's terrorism figures can be compared and we can see what, if any, progress has been made in the international war on terror. That will be interesting indeed, since many of the incidents now recorded are in areas where the U.S. doesn't, so to speak, have a dog in the fight -- such as Spain (Cf. the Madrid train bombings) and Russia (Cf. the Beslan hostage crisis).

Of course, as officials have acknowledged, this data is quantitative and not qualitative -- there may be more or less incidents, but the incidents recorded now may turn out to be more or less heinous and grisly than those that have come before. So perhaps next year we will have a new definition, now radically compartmentalized, with whole scores of criteria for scope, atrocity, number of victims, dollar amount of property damage, and so on, so that finally it will be impossible to glean any sort of overview of the state of world terrorism. The definitions will finally become disperate, and final approaching the principle of differánce.

But perhaps that's rather a good thing -- for as the NCTC further compartmentalizes its definitions it strikes down the illusion that there is such a thing as "world terrorism," a unified but amorphous and inscrutable force hanging over the heads of freedom-loving people everywhere. And from there, could there grow a more realistic (popular) view of terrorism, terrorists, and everything that contributes to their creation and their actions?

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