Item: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Item: Trump’s new national security advisor General McMaster calls use of the term ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ “counter-productive.”
Here’s where I have to part company with The Bard and his sweet Juliet. Words matter, and the term “Radical Islamic Terrorism” matters a great deal. It’s a miserable misnomer, and its selective application defames well more than a billion-and-half of our fellow travelers on the globe.
Of course, there’s history here. That phrase became a campaign issue when Dems eschewed its use, to the loud objection of GOP candidates, notably Mr. Trump, himself. So, who’s right? Deconstructing it may help.
First, take the adjective “radical” (please). Does it add or clarify anything, modifying the term “terrorism” as it does? Another way to ask that question is to wonder whether there are any non-radical (e.g., ‘moderate’) terrorists abroad in the land? No, there are not – middle-of-the-road terrorism is an oxymoron – not unlike an ‘alternative fact’. At best, it’s redundant – just put there to deepen the dread without adding actual descriptive meaning. And isn’t dread what terrorists hope to incite?
Okay, what about “Islamic”? For some, this adjective is a bit more tricky. It is certainly true that the current incarnation of much Middle East mayhem also uses the descriptor in the acronyms ISIS or ISIL. And it’s also true that there are other breeds of terrorists – just in this country we’ve had tragic terror from Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma City or the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, or the murderous Dylan Roof. Most Klan activity intends to inspire terror.
Around the globe, there are more than 50 terror groups recognized by the State Department, and organized around either religious extremism, separatist or Marxist themes. Outside the Middle East, they include Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the FARC in Colombia, and Boko Haram in Africa. Many of the Middle East groups claim an Islamist affiliation, but they are vastly different from each other – so does lumping them together clarify -- or obscure true meaning and accuracy?
Further, does use of the term create a wildly inaccurate guilt-by-association? There are 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world, less than 20% of whom live in the Middle East/North Africa, and about a Billion of whom inhabit the Asia Pacific region. Most pay little note to global political strife. Indeed, reliable estimates of the number of militants among the world's Muslims calculate to about 106,000.
Thus, we tar an entire religious group with the misdeeds of less than 1/1000th of one percent. Put another way, “99 and 44/100ths percent pure” is good enough for Ivory Snow, but 50 times better than that – 99 and 999/1,000ths percent is not, when applied to the Islamic faith? Do you think that does cruel harm to an overwhelmingly law-abiding religious community?
Indeed, do we apply similar terms to terrorists of other religious persuasions? There’s ample evidence that Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph was motivated by misplaced Christian zeal. Yet, do we refer to him (or James Kopp, Robert Dear, Paul Hill, John Burt or Michael Griffin, among others) as a “Christian terrorist?” Of course we don’t, as that would be grossly unfair to an overwhelmingly law-abiding religious community. Hmm.
So the term may be mildly descriptive, but it is also vastly over-generalized to the point of absurdity, and used in ways we do not apply to other religious groups -- out of fairness -- because it does real harm.
Perhaps something like that is what General McMaster has in mind when he calls it counter-productive, or “unhelpful.” In his first senior staff meeting, the new Trump national security maven called ISIS “a perversion of Islam,” and said that mid-east terrorists are distinctly “un-Islamic.” A colleague who served with the General in Iraq as he planned the successful ‘surge’ concurred, saying that McMaster “absolutely does not view Islam as the enemy.” He also “ordered his soldiers to treat detainees humanely and not to use derogatory language toward Muslims.”
Now, obviously, there’s a day of reckoning coming between the experienced warrior, whom Slate calls the “Army’s smartest Officer” and the callow chickenhawks at roost in the White House. I wish him well, fervently so. He may be one of our best hopes to dial back the doomsday clock, a few ticks farther away from midnight. Stay tuned -- very tuned.
In the meantime, howsabout we put that wretched ‘RIT’ term to rest?