03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Terrorism: Not 'Just Semantics'

Ever since 9/11, Americans have engaged an ongoing debate on how to make sense of terrorism, and along those lines, what measures to take when terrorists are caught.

There are two basic schools of thought on the matter. The first: terrorism is "war," and the second: terrorism is "crime." Which perspective is adopted, in turn correlates with a desired plan of action.

If terrorism is perceived as a form of "warfare," then apprehended terrorists should be treated like prisoners in a conventional war and thus subjected to the provisions outlined in the Geneva Convention.

Alternatively, if terrorism is considered to be a "crime," then captives should be treated as criminals who maintain the protections stipulated in the Bill of Rights, specifically the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth amendments.

Examining the semantics of "terrorism" - warfare, crime, both, or perhaps something else - dictates how Americans perceive and understand acts of terrorism. It is essential that the country's leaders position themselves in discussing this new risk to American lives and values.

This is a problem of semantics, but not "just semantics." Semantics is the area of linguistics and philosophy concerned with meanings. And while language may be "just words," the words we use ultimately determine the actions we take and the solutions we consider. If we choose the wrong semantics, we may find ourselves going down a path that leads to confusion rather than solution.

It is tempting to assign "terrorism" to a specific category: "war" or "crime." Both have been known to human societies for millennia. Over that time we have evolved rules for understanding and transacting war and crime, for punishing the latter and (all too often) glorifying the former. It is natural to want to associate the frightening and unfamiliar "terrorism" with a familiar category. But reliance on conventional wisdom does not always produce intelligent understanding.

The word "terrorism" has been used for only several of hundred years as it was coined during the French Revolution. So, to understand the term we resort to analogies to the familiar but find only the imperfect candidates, crime and war.

The problem of semantics is exacerbated given that terrorism appears to be a form of warfare in some ways, but a crime in others. At times, it seems that terrorism could fall into both, or even neither category. There are obvious similarities, and just as obvious differences, between clear cases of war and crime, although there are mixtures like "war crime" and "crime war," as well as ambiguities involving both: is an action a "war" if it has not been declared via constitutionally mandated procedures; is behavior a "crime" if large segments of the population engage in it and see nothing wrong with it?

Something is clearly "war" when it has been officially declared by the government of one nation against another; when its aims include territorial conquest; when those aims are achieved by largely physical means (e.g., shooting and killing). Something is clearly "crime" when a person or group within a nation engages in acts contrary to the laws of that nation; when the aims involve those persons' illegitimate acquisition of possessions or power; and when (typically though not necessarily) success is achieved through physical force, coercion, or manipulation.

The current semantic problem with terrorism is that "terrorism" includes some of what we understand as "war," and some that we understand as "crime," as well as some that are unique to terrorism. So terrorism should not be seen exclusively as one or the other, as many analysts have been suggesting. To deal properly with terrorism, it must be understood in its own terms.

Terrorism is like war because: it is aimed at a nation and is achieved by physical means. But those who do it typically are not a nation in their own right. And a victorious outcome does not necessarily include the annexation of territory or physical property. The aim of the terrorist is harder to discern, but something like: provoking fear and confusion in a populace and instilling in it distrust in its government, and in one another - for some further purpose, not always clear. A terrorist act is a message, a speech act accomplished via action (like flag-burning), designed to affect hearts and minds even more than bodies. It is inappropriate to equate speech acts directly with physical acts, or to respond to one as to the other.

Terrorism is like crime because: it is committed by individuals; it involves illegal behavior; it furthers a non-national group's agenda. Some of what a terrorist seeks to accomplish looks a lot like the effects of crime: the destruction of trust and social cohesion through force or intimidation. But the criminal's desire stops with the success of the act itself; the terrorist's act is a means to an even more destructive end.

Should an apprehended terrorist, then, go like a criminal before a jury, or like a POW before a military tribunal? Some analysts advocate one or the other solution; others seem unhappy with both. To equate terrorism with crime might have the practical consequence of leading to acquittals due to jury intimidation or defense shenanigans; to equate it with war would entail strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions. Both entail theoretical problems: terrorism doesn't fit our definitions of war or crime, and therefore treatment of terrorists as soldiers or criminals doesn't quite make sense. But a country that takes rightful pride in its application of the principles of justice "for all," no matter what they may have done, needs to arrive at a workable and intuitive way of achieving justice for terrorists, too.

We must see that we are currently entangled in a problem of semantics, and not "just semantics." If we don't know what we mean by a word (like "terrorism"), we will never be able to take appropriate steps against it. Language is only words but more than words, and only by stepping back and asking what this rather new and very frightening word really means will we manage to take hold of it.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?