About 10 days ago, I was preparing to take part in a discussion on All the Way IN Radio. (Check the News & Views section of the homepage for directions to the broadcast.) The topic, which concerned zeal vs. terrorism, was set in the context of the Fort Hood shooting. My research raised more questions than answers, but one thing became clear: the need for precise language in dialogue on sensitive topics. 

Take terrorism. According to the Christian Science Monitor, retired Army general John Keane offered his thoughts on the definition during testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. To quote the article, “Hasan shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ before firing on a crowd…. That’s enough evidence for General Keane to label the shooting an act of terrorism.” What does this mean? That the addition of a religious utterance automatically turns an act of violence into terrorism? If, then, a platoon of soldiers publicly dedicates their efforts in battle to Jesus Christ, is that terrorism?

The definition of terror in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary comes closer: “violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.” Yet if we accept this definition—with the word group—we rule out the Fort Hood shooting as an act of terrorism, because Major Hasan allegedly acted alone. Is that reasonable?

Based on the terrorist atrocities of the past several decades, I think we can make certain assertions about the concept of terrorism with some confidence. It involves physical violence. It’s designed for media coverage. The goal is to intimidate and/or call attention to a cause.

Note what’s missing here: any mention of religion or spirituality. Clearly, religion does motivate some to commit acts of terror. But religion is not a necessary condition. Right?

Or wrong?

This is tough stuff, and granted, it can devolve into pointless hair splitting. But there’s a reason for getting it right. As my sister-in-law says, “Words mean things.” They also carry emotional weight—especially the buzzwords at the center of our most divisive issues. Use them at all and you get an instant reaction. Toss them around carelessly and the emotional reaction multiplies. People get angry, put up their defenses, and stop talking. Nothing gets solved.

Throughout a dialogue, then, it’s useful to keep a small part of our brains finely tuned to the words we use. If we can use them precisely—and civilly—we have a better chance of communicating our meaning, being heard, and making progress with our adversaries.