The word “terrorism” is often tied to various crimes — but the has sparked disagreement over the usage of the word.
The debate over what counts as terrorism comes after Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio spoke out against Mayor Kenney’s denial of terroristic action as the cause of the Philadelphia shooting. Expert Piotr Szpunar, George Gerbner Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, said that the word can spark disagreement because of the openness of its definition.
“I think that one of the reasons there can be this disagreement is because of the mutability of the definition itself, the openness to kind of interpretations,” Szpunar said.
Currently, there is no single agreed-upon definition of terrorism. Each institution, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense and the United States legal courts, has its own standards for what action can be deemed terrorism.
“Whoever perpetrates this sort of violence is doing so for a political reason, and that itself is ill defined,” Szpunar said.
Rubio and Kenney had different interpretations of terrorism in their debates.
“The mayor of Philadelphia — who I know nothing about other than the fact that he’s delusional — said this has nothing to do with ISIS or Islam,” Rubio said.
However, Kenney had a much different interpretation of terrorism.
“He [Rubio] is not representative of Islam. Period,” he said. He added that Rubio was labelling an entire population and religion just based on the violent actions of those “with deranged views of Islam.”
Kenney also went on to criticize Rubio’s exploitation of the shooting of a police officer in order to gain political points.
During election season, politicians often use extensive rhetoric to fall back on what Szpunar calls the “reductive tie” between religion and crime. In his choice to reject the possibility of a terrorist occurrence, Szpunar said that Mayor Kenney “is really not falling into the trap of claiming that Islam is to blame for violent actions”.
Kenney is looking to avoid the consequences that follow the “overarching” statement made by Rubio, such as discrimination and violence against the targeted group, Szpunar said.
The election season, however, also brings policymaking in dealing with ISIS to the forefront of debates. The importance of foreign policy makes it difficult not to connect Rubio’s statements with his campaign for the Republican nomination.
“Rubio’s play is to also show that he has a hard stance on terrorism,” Szpunar said.
Though it is not easily defined, terrorism is more easily dealt with. Rubio’s label of “terrorism” ensures that there is no room for ambiguity. Since the United States has a system in place for combating terrorism, Szpunar said that there is often no need to look inward at the political and social issues occurring, causing the violence.
He added that labelling an action as terrorism leaves no room or even need for an explanation.
“When you call someone a terrorist, they don’t have a legitimate foot to stand on,” Szpunar said.
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