"Terrorism: An Act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."
– The Most Recent U.N. Treaty on Terrorism
Theoretically, this is a great definition of terrorism. It encompasses more or less all of the things a terrorist or a terrorist act is supposed to be and distinguishes acts of terrorism from acts of war.
The only problem with that definition is that modern lingo isn't as cut and dry. Where Webster's or the United Nations might be able to define something neatly and easily, modern slang can often twist and torque the definition to the point that it loses it's original meaning altogether.
An excellent example of this occurred on CNN following the recent grenade attack at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait (For those who don't know, in the attack a US soldier threw three grenades into leadership tents killing two and wounding a dozen.). In the initial confusion after the attack, it was assumed by most that an Iraqi soldier had somehow penetrated the compound and initiated the attack.
While this is an easy and understandable conclusion to jump to, several news organizations, including CNN, were quick to use the words "terrorist attack."
Needless to say, this flagrantly goes against the current definition of terrorism. If it had been carried out by an Iraqi soldier, it would have been an attack carried out by an enlisted soldier against a hostile military force. No civilians, no deceptions, just a regular, old-fashioned, guerrilla warfare attack. Nothing terrorist about it, save the fact it was against the United States.
Now, the conspiracy-minded might say that this is an attempt by western news to further vilify the Iraqi troops by labeling even legitimate Iraqi assaults as "terrorist". However, I think the more likely solution, given how quickly the situation arose and how little planning went into its coverage, is that it's just a sign of exactly how far the word "terrorism" has degraded.
You see, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, "terrorism" has been the buzzword and, as such, has been used as often as possible by both the media and the people in power. The problem with this overuse is that, after a while, it starts getting applied to things that really don't fit the bill. In the past year and a half, I've heard it applied to hackers, computer virus authors, serial killers, bullies and now a legitimate military assault (that didn't actually take place).
The problem with all of this besides the continued warping of the English language is that terrorists are the people we, as a country, are fighting against and out to destroy. By labeling someone or something a terrorist, we are effectively sentencing it to death, if not a physical death, then a personal and emotional one.
Historically, we need to look no farther back than the fifties to find another example of this. However the buzzword of the day wasn't "terrorist" but rather "Communist". America, so scared by our former Communist allies, it began to use the term Communist interchangeably with words such as "evil" and "vile". Everything wrong in the world seemed to be caused by "commies" and the term degraded (largely at the hands of one McCarthy) to the point that it was applied to anyone who disagreed with the government, no matter what the subject or what the reason. Even some libertarians, the virtual opposite of communists, were coined as such simply because their views didn't mesh with the status quo.
Such is the risk here, the more and more we throw around the word "terrorist" unjustly, the more we risk another McCarthy-style witch hunt. At the current rate, it's only a matter of time before the word terrorist is applied to political dissidents, protesters or just every day people exercising their right to disagree and speak out on political matters. In short order, we could find ourselves losing the very freedoms that supposedly separate "us" from "them" and, if that does come to pass, the term "terrorist" to describe how our government treats its own citizens might not be that far off base.
Basically, as a nation, we need to watch our tongues and stick to the definitions at hand. We can't play loose and fast with such a serious word, even when it's tempting. There's simply too much at stake here and we can't afford to be reckless because the slippery slope theory tells us that it's only a shot trip until we're sailing off the edge of the cliff.
A cliff we, as a nation, have been over once before, but certainly don't want to go over again.