Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Terrorists" on the High Seas? No! They Are Pirates

As has been widely reported that in the sea surrounding Somalia, pirates hijacked an American ship and now hold its captain hostage.

During this a.m.'s Morning Joe, a guest requested that we cease calling the hijackers "pirates" and, instead, refer to them as "terrorists." Perhaps my objection is frivolous, but I disagree with the suggestion that we call these rouges terrorists.

Terminology packs an initial punch, but can quickly fade. Take the so-called War on Terror. That label was designed to evoke a feeling of extreme danger and imminence and full-blown war. And at first, the term accomplished just that. However, when you use a label like that, you are asking people to experience those high-stress emotions each time the label is uttered, which is asking too much and is unrealistic.

First, humans do not wish to experience such emotions constantly. Second, the long-term repetition of the label enables listeners to grow accustomed to the label's effects. Third, long-term repetition of the label allows listeners to practice suppressing the label's effects. Thus, we become desensitized to the label's desired impact. By extension, suddenly the matter for which the label stands becomes less serious.

To some extent, this has happened with the War on Terror. Notice how Secretary Clinton recently announced that the label would no longer be used. This is some evidence that the label no longer serves a useful purpose. That is, we have become desensitized to the purposes behind the label, and it is at least arguable that we Americans have become desensitized to the idea that the War on Terror is a war and not a matter for criminal investigation.

If we take the extreme step of labeling these hijackers "terrorists," instead of the more natural label "pirates," the same might occur. After all, these hijackers have not conducted themselves as threateningly and dangerously as terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. Thus, the extreme label "terrorist" is likely to grow tiresome, making Americans take the very real threat presented by these pirates less seriously.

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