Ah, the ‘T’ word—terrorism. We have certainly been obsessed with it of late, probably since the awful events of 9/11.
The phenomenon of terrorism did not of course make its appearance on the world stage two decades ago—most scholars date the beginning of this form of ideological violence to the middle of the 19th century—but it receives a lot more attention than it once did. Ironically, the very medium in which you are reading this piece, the media, is largely responsible for this growth in exposure.
Alas, we cannot agree with what the word even means. Most of us would accept, I would imagine, that this particular manifestation of violence differs from “garden-variety” types in that it is motivated by ideas, be they political, religious, or otherwise. In contrast, a run-of-the-mill stabbing on a train usually stems from an argument gone wrong or as a consequence of a mentally disturbed individual.
Making matters worse, some governments elect to play the terrorism card to label just about anything—or anybody—they see as unwanted. In Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed in a film as a life-saving hero during the Rwandan genocide, was sentenced to 25 years for terrorism by a court in 2021. On July 11, 2023, an Australian-Vietnamese national returned home to Sydney after being released from prison in Vietnam, where he was serving 12 years on terrorism charges for being a member of a banned pro-democracy group.
In other words, in some parts of the globe, authorities use the terrorism hammer to label those they see as opponents, or those advocating changes not in the current government’s favour. Perhaps these officials believe that the horror of seeing planes flown into office towers in 2001 is still resonant with most, and as a result, they can get away with playing the terrorism card (who, after all, wants to be seen as supporting terrorism?).
To the list of governments guilty of this tactic we have to add the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—quelle surprise! In December of last year, Kamile Wayit, a 19-year-old preschool education major at the Shangqiu Institute of Technology in Henan Province, was detained by officials in Xinjiang for sharing on social media a video on the “white paper“ protests (in which ordinary citizens held up blank sheets of paper to complain about COVID-19 restrictions and the lack of free speech) that had swept across China a month earlier. She was later sentenced to three years in prison for ”advocating extremism” (i.e., terrorism).
How does sharing a video related to public protest constitute “terrorism”?
Given the imprecise nature of what constitutes terrorism, we would perhaps be better without it in our courts. After all, few nations had terrorism-specific legislation prior to 9/11 (Canada did not, for instance) and there are other ways to prosecute this form of killing and maiming. Still, that day is likely very far off as nations do see an advantage in slapping the ‘T’ word on whomever they please.
Just ask the Chinese regime.