Memo to the press: please stop abusing the word “militant”

A request to members of the press: please quit using “militant” as a euphemism for “terrorist”. It just doesn’t work: by the normal usage of the English language, that isn’t even remotely what “militant” means. In normal usage, one might speak, for instance, of the militant members of Churchill’s cabinet, who wanted to impose sanctions on Japan, or of the militant members of the United Auto Workers, who wanted to go on strike. In neither case are these people who blow up women and children. Members of Churchill’s cabinet might risk war, and innocents might end up getting blown up as part of that war, but blowing them up isn’t the chief tactic or even something that will necessarily happen at all. Likewise, union violence has sometimes gotten ugly, but the accusation of ugly violence is in no way implied when one talks about “militant” union members. (If you screw up the language enough, in future it might be, but it isn’t now.) Even talking about “militant Islam” doesn’t yet imply that one is talking purely about terrorists, or even just about physically violent people: some aggression is implied, but it need not be physical; it might just be “lawfare”.

I am not asking you to give up euphemisms, or even to give up being mealy-mouthed about terrorism. I know the world is a big complicated place, which contains a lot of people who will kill you (or just deny you access to information) if you don’t write euphemistically about them. To ask you to try to ignore that would be inhuman. It’s just that there are better words to use. “Insurgents” is often appropriate, particularly in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Applying that word to Pakistan’s jihadists might be questioned, since there is often a suspicion (or more than a suspicion) that they have governmental backing, whereas “insurgents” by definition want to overthrow the government. But insurgencies have often had sympathizers and helpers inside the government, so the word still is reasonably applicable. When the government is sponsoring terrorism outside Pakistan, as in Mumbai, there’s just no good word for that but terrorism. Sometimes “bandits” is the best word, as when a group is operating mainly for profit and is just a local entity. In a more urban environment, “gangs” can be appropriate. The word “guerrillas” almost seems reserved, these days, for Communists, but it long antedates Communism, and could be used for armed struggles by other movements.

Admittedly, choosing between these sorts of words requires a bit of thought and knowledge of the language. It’s harder than just adopting the mindless policy that ‘whenever an authority says “terrorist”, replace it with “militant”’. (That often seems to be the policy — except of course in direct quotes, which aren’t supposed to be altered; thus the same article will switch from “terrorist” when directly quoting someone to “militant” when paraphrasing him.) But it’s not inappropriate to ask you to think a bit and to know the language; that is supposed to be the business you’re in.

As it is, you just look silly; perhaps the silliest thing I’ve seen was a picture of burning oil tankers in Pakistan that had been destined to supply US troops in Afghanistan, captioned as being blown up by “suspected militants”. Now, first of all, when talking about the persons who actually blew up the tankers (and that was the sentence structure of the caption), there is no need to tack on “suspected”. They did it. We don’t know who they are, but they did it. It’s only when talking about people whose identities are known but whose guilt is questionable that “suspected” is appropriate, to protect their reputations. Still, the use of the word “suspected” indicates how much, when you write “militant”, you’re really thinking “terrorist”, and expect people to read the word as “terrorist”. There would be no need to tack on “suspected” to any proper uses of “militant”: militant members of the UAW, for instance, are proud to be militant. It’s only because “militant” here means “terrorist” that anyone thinks of adding “suspected”. The dodge is too transparent to do you any good. It doesn’t even do what you might want it to do here, which is to note that blowing up military convoys is by traditional standards a legitimate operation of war, not something that deserves the label “terrorism”.

Lest it be thought that I am just asking you to be better in deceiving people: no, I don’t like to be deceived. I can tolerate attempts at deception as the price for getting even minimal information out of bad areas, but I don’t like it. And a lot of this equivocation is not forced, but comes out of things like the mantra “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Really to be a “freedom fighter” one has to be fighting for freedom — individual freedom, that is: the “freedom” to be ruled by a dictator of one’s own race and color is not freedom; it’s “independence”, and its benefits are dubious. Modern-day terrorists usually don’t even pretend to be fighting for freedom, or have only the shallowest of pretenses (such as saying one thing in English to foreign journalists, and a very different thing in their own language).

Now, this does get complicated: some of them do pretend to be fighting for freedom; and conversely, some people who are genuinely fighting for freedom end up achieving a dictatorship. But when they’re not even really pretending, why should you pretend for them?

As for terrorism, it can be distinguished from terror, which is part of normal military tactics. Military terror is more serious: when an opposing army breaks ranks and flees in terror, it is because if they stayed they would be killed (or captured, if lucky). Tricking an opponent into fleeing does happen, but one needs a very substantial show of force to pull that off. Terrorism, in contrast, is a belief in terror as a force that can move people even when there is only a miniscule probability of them being killed or injured. A common pattern in the language is to add the suffix “-ism” to a word when people take their belief in it to a ridiculous extreme, and terrorism is no exception. Many of its tactics inherently cannot be scaled up into a more potent threat: they rely on hitting people who are unprepared, and if they were used more often people would prepare. Commandeering passenger aircraft for suicide attacks only worked for one day, and even during that day the last set of passengers knew to fight back. Even the military has found that when they try behind-enemy-lines raids too often they end up with a Blackhawk Down style debacle. The trick is to realize the limits of terrorist tactics, and not be fooled into a “they’ll kill us all” sort of mindset, which might result in surrender or in overreaction.

Of course to know the limits of any given terrorist tactic, one has to have a decent grasp of the military art, which is not something I can reasonably ask of you: it’s a full-time job for military officers, which makes it too much to ask of the average journalist. Praise is due to reporters who do have a good grasp of it, like Michael Yon and C. J. Chivers, but they spent years learning. It’s not something that is entirely beyond you, but it does take effort, and whether out of leftist pacifism or out of just not having the time, the vast majority of you haven’t exerted that effort. Still, at bottom, whether to call something “terrorist” is a substantive question: if the violence inherently can’t be scaled up — if its main effect can only be as a bloody show to shock TV viewers — then it’s terrorism; otherwise it’s something else. That’s the way the word is generally used, when it’s used sincerely. Of course it’s also abused, but that’s no excuse for completely refusing to use it. And substituting “militant” for it is just silly.