A group of men are still camped out in an Oregon wildlife refuge, eating snacks, waving guns, sweeping sex toys off tables, and trying to spark the overthrow of the federal government. One of the band’s leaders has announced that they will meet with the community soon to unveil their exit strategy. Until then, what should we call them? We’ve heard militia and occupiers and patriots, extremists and insurgents and insurrectionists and protesters. Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (their preferred designation). Anti-government ranchers. Armed activists. Criminals. Even terrorists.
Some wags have skewered the terrorist label by rechristening the men Vanilla ISIS and Y’all Qaida, or pronouncing them upholders of “Shania law.” (Our zeal to apply Southern-inspired terms to non-Southerners seems slightly icky, as if all lower-income white people hailed from the same 11 states, and all bumpkins spoke with a country twang.) Other commentators prefer generically dismissive insults: nudniks, chumps, goobers, and jamokes. Wringing our hands over how to describe these guys might seem frivolous, but at stake here are questions philosophical as well as semantic: Is it better—more correct, more politically responsible—to use a loaded and powerful term to summon the maximum amount of condemnation for bad behavior? Or should we be lobbying for sillier words that may not carry the same moral force, but undermine the targets through humor?
Advocating for jamoke, the Concourse argues that “when you call these horse’s asses ‘terrorists,’ you are not only dignifying their ridiculous, impotent actions,” but also “doing them the biggest favor for which they can hope”: postponing their confrontation with reality. On the other hand, as Juliette Kayyem, a national security analyst for CNN, points out, “They are flouting federal law, they have a political purpose, and they clearly are willing to use violence to get their way.”
That Ammon Bundy and his comrades-in-arms harnessed the threat of bloodshed to intimidate the government—“I came here to die,” said one of the activists, though to date no one in the standoff has been harmed—would seem to qualify them as “domestic terrorists” (albeit not very effective ones). Yet other terrorist calling cards—the targeting of random civilians, the inspiring of actual terror—are missing. Thanks to terrorism’s flexibility as a term, our decision to use it or not probably has less to do with definitional correctness than with how seriously we want to take a given provocation.
But first, some history. As Jonathan Wilson explains on the Junto, Americans originally reserved the word terrorist for an agent of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in France. The terrorist was a politically powerful figure, a Jacobin, who wielded brutal and repressive tactics against the common person (note that he was not an extremist who menaced the government from without). In the early 1800s, as the French Revolution faded in memory, terrorist’s range of meanings widened to embrace unspecified political villainy. Federalists slammed Republicans as “terrorists” in the pages of the Connecticut Gazette; Republicans countered by prophesying, in New York’s Public Advertiser, “a renewed reign of federal [i.e. Federalist] terrorism.” The word denoted a generic despot or ideologue—basically, anyone awful enough to disagree with your views on the national debt.
But writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1813, John Adams found a fresh use for the epithet. If terrorists had once been agents of the state—members of oppressive governments or rival parties—Adams used the term to condemn civilian men who rose up in defiance of bruising federal policies. “You have never felt the terrorism of Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts,” Adams groused, referring to an armed revolt by farmers fed up with what they saw as unfair tax laws. “You never felt the terrorism of Mr. Gallatin’s insurrection in Pennsylvania.” (By this he meant the Whiskey Rebellion, another tax protest.) Adams would likely be comfortable calling Bundy and company a terrorist outfit, given their comparable position as economically disadvantaged ranchers taking a stand against the so-called abuses of the centralized government. (Had he been a Tory, Adams might have even designated the anti-England rebels “terrorists,” allowing us to define the Adamsian terrorist as nothing more or less than a failed revolutionary.)
Today, of course, different rules apply. Title 22, Section 2656 of the U.S. Code construes terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets.” By that standard, the Oregon yahoos are not terrorists: They haven’t committed any atrocities, and the people most endangered by their actions are not random civilians, but the hypothetical government employees who may at some point be called in to break up their demonstration.
Yet there’s something almost irresistible about graduating these men to the status of terrorists. It feels like an offering to the gods of parity: We liberally apply the word terrorist to Muslims and people of color who don’t deserve it, so not employing similar terror-babble for a group of white guys who definitely deserve something seems like a glaring injustice. That’s the spirit in which many journalists seem to be invoking the T-word, at least. As Janell Ross asks in the Washington Post, “Where has the lock-step adherence to careful and delicate language been in all of 2015 when unarmed black Americans were disproportionately more likely to be killed by police than others?” “White Americans,” Ross continues, “their activities and ideas, seem always to stem from a font of principled and committed individuals. … The sometimes-coded but increasingly overt ways that some Americans are presumed guilty and violence-prone while others are assumed to be principled and peaceable unless and until provoked—even when actually armed—is remarkable.”
The obvious rejoinder here is an appeal to immutable kindergarten logic: Two wrongs don’t make a right. What’s more, escalating the Oregon standoff with inflammatory rhetoric puts lives in danger. (In top-level situation rooms, the response to a “terrorist attack” or an “armed insurrection” looks very different from the diffusing tactics associated with peaceful protest.) That said, doing the right thing as regards these ranchers demands a simultaneous acknowledgment that we are really good at doing the right thing when it comes to white people who haven’t hurt anyone, and less noble with nonwhite people who haven’t hurt anyone. Put another way: If Ammon Bundy isn’t a terrorist, then Michael Brown sure as hell isn’t a thug.
To be fair, Americans have wrestled publicly with such questions of naming. Writing about the Oregon ranchers, news outlets have reached for contemptuous, funny labels and neutral labels and solemn, scary labels—and explicated their reasoning. Social media users have decried over and over the unequal ways in which journalists cover white and nonwhite protests. At a certain point, you start to wonder why the semantics of armed insurrection matter so much, when there are matters of gun control and economic distress and federal response to consider.
We may not understand public land laws, but we understand how to be outraged about linguistic dog whistles. We may not want to worry about gun-toting crazies, but we are happy to worry about Fox News’ lopsided vision of terrorism. And while our preoccupation with getting the language right might seem depressing in this context, it’s not entirely quixotic or useless. Language represents an island of control in a vast sea of helplessness, and debating language is a way of thinking more clearly through aspects of society that elude our control. It’s a better way, at least, than marching, armed, into a building in Oregon like a bunch of … well.