Talking Terror over Tweets - Secrecy Week


Photo illustration by boltron. The word “terrorist” replaces the original term, “communist”, from an anti-communist propaganda film dating back to the 1950s.

This week, as President Obama did by signing NDAA into law, I completely abdicated one of my core beliefs as a principled American citizen… by getting myself a Twitter account. If any BTR reader had the time, interest, or energy (which would be really sad) you could find scores of blogosphere tirades by yours truly on the vanity of Twitter. As I’m typing now, I’m slowly trying to enjoy the taste of my own foot in my mouth.

Outside of the lesson in humility, it has been an admittedly interesting experience so far, especially since the presidential election is heating up. Substantive debates on Twitter are, of course, cumbersome and especially so for the novice. Yet one captivating discussion I’ve recently engaged in via the social media juggernaut concerns the recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and whether or not these actions qualify as terrorism.

In case you haven’t heard about this story, a scientist working for Iran’s nuclear program was killed on Wednesday after two assassins on motorcycles attached a magnetic bomb to his car on the streets of Tehran. Entertaining the logical assumption that a Western power, likely the U.S. or Israel if not in some combined effort, executed the bombing plot raises some questions about the moral high ground in the War on Terror.

Glenn Greenwald wrote a fantastic piece for Salon on the topic, which I found through his Twitter account. In it, Greenwald juxtaposes the media and government rhetoric surrounding the foiled, Iranian-backed “terror” plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington with a car bomb that was revealed last October to the coverage of this week’s attack. Regardless of whether or not the State Department confirmed U.S. involvement, there still has not been one mention of the latter incident categorized an act of terror even though both plots are identical in nature.

Inevitably, these debates over the use of politically weighted terms like “terrorism” can run into vicious argumentative cycles on the merits of political correctness. The last time the question was thrown into the American political foray was the Fort Hood shooting, which incurred the fury of the right after the Obama administration categorized the incident as “workplace violence” instead of terrorism. Still, Greenwald posits an undeniably accurate assessment concerning the very nature of the word in 2012: “Part of the problem here is the pretense that Terrorism has some sort of fixed, definitive meaning. It does not.”

Of course, the essay format allows Greenwald to expound on his point with evidence and prose to convince his audience. Twitter doesn’t operate this way, obviously, and in the land of brevity, only wit can be king. Yet I’ve found the 140-characters-or-less format of tweeting and the lightning current of Twitter feeds to breed not so much a functional discourse, but rather, afford the user a vague impression of how everyday (albeit outspoken) individuals feel about current events. Garner yourself a few hundred people worth following and it’s as if you have thousands of Cafferty File-style editorials running at you at 100 miles per hour and you’re given the convenience to call out any one of them instantly.

One Twitter user I found made a very telling point on this issue and one somewhat contrary to Greenwald’s. I’d identify him, but at his request he would prefer to be left nameless, so we’ll just call him Mr. X for now. It also should be noted that Mr. X’s point was one I only tacitly gathered from his tweeted reaction to my bringing up Greenwald’s article. Cleaned up for grammar and clarity, his tweet read, “Who was at risk? Not the general public, not all officials, not all scientists — only Iran’s nuclear scientists.” I would argue the logic of Mr. X’s broader statement is somewhat flawed here because it hinges on defining terrorism as posing a threat to the general public. If a car bomb in the street of a capitol city isn’t some danger to the general public, or at least a cause for general panic, then I don’t know what else terrorism could be by that definition alone.

What Mr. X does stumble on here is a key ingredient to the West’s collective definition of terrorism: the killing of innocent civilians. From that position, where does a nuclear scientist stand? The equivalency between targeting a scientist helping a rogue nation to destabilize the Middle East beyond any peaceful measure and a Saudi Ambassador (even one with possible ties to Al-Qaeda) now begins to erode. Showing pictures of the slain scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, next to his son (as Salon does for the lead photograph to Greenwald’s op-ed) paints the picture of a human being, a college professor, and perhaps most importantly, a father. Considering he and his body guard were the only people killed in the bombing, let’s say he was shot by a sniper instead — would that still be considered terrorism? Does the method of attack or the intended target matter in drawing a definition here? Further, if we consider nuclear scientists to be civilians, does that make bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities an unspeakable atrocity? Good luck convincing the American people of that as the threat of Iran’s nuclear capabilities increases with every passing day.

As the 2012 presidential election ramps up and so does national security rhetoric, the nebulousness of the word “terrorism” becomes a threat to our civil liberties. We’ve seen it used most recently to justify the indefinite detention of American citizens and unmistakably unconstitutional erosion of due process in the case of NDAA. Still, I can only imagine an audience holding back laughter in a town hall presidential debate if a reasoned and informed individual asked each candidate for their own definition of the term. What a travesty that would be, after all, the conceptual malleability of terrorism in the hands of authorities is matched only by its grave importance to our world.