Words really do matter

Jack Stevenson Columnist

During the Vietnam era, I researched and taught career U.S. Army officers the subject we now call “terrorism.” We were aware that the outcome of that type of conflict is often influenced by public opinion. Technology has changed; human nature has not. When the Trade Towers and the Pentagon were struck, the national pundits started using the term “terrorism” to describe the activity.

I was stunned. The problem with that word is that it conveys the sense that we are afraid, that we are helpless victims. Using that term was and remains a mistake. It would be appropriate to call the perpetrators mass murders, criminals, or any derogatory term that belittles them.

Fear is one of the great motivators. Unfortunately, politicians can exploit fear to gain political advantage. They created and exploited fear by calling criminal attacks on our civilian population “terrorism.” They still attempt to exploit fear, and they will continue to do so as long as we allow it to happen. Here are some recent examples: Americans are “really scared;” “our way of life is at stake;” ISIS is “organizing to destroy Western Civilization;” ISIS “will continue to grow, metastasize, and kill us.”

These remarks are nonsense. It isn’t going to happen.

The conflict that generated the use of the “t” word has been in progress for 15 years and may continue far into the future. Fear is harmful to health. Fear can be especially difficult for young children who do not have much experience but do have active imaginations. Our opponents in this struggle do not have an army, an air force, or a navy. They do not have industrial facilities, universities, or advanced engineering facilities. Therefore, they use any devious tactic they can think of. If they could terrorize us, they would, but they can’t. We can be terrorized only if we are foolish enough to do it to ourselves. Cartoonist Walt Kelly captured the essence of this problem: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

In a situation where there is real danger, expression of fear cannot be tolerated. Expression of fear where danger is real can cause panic and disaster. Think of a crowded building where fire has been discovered. People need to exit in a calm and orderly manner to avoid blocking the exits and crushing themselves. Or, think of a military battle where fear exists even on a good day, but expression of fear would be psychologically unacceptable; it would cause a disaster.

If you want to do something useful for yourself, your family, and your country, look someone directly in the eye and declare: I am not afraid of Muslims; I am not terrorized, and America is not terrorized.

And let us abolish the “T” word. It has no justification in a land where courage is commonplace.

Jack Stevenson served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He lives in Pensacola, Fla., and can be reached by email at Sheavybones@gmail.com.

Jack Stevenson Columnist
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