Words matter, even, and perhaps especially in moments of crisis. At such times, words provide us with a conceptual framework to understand the things happening around us. Choose words that are inadequate to the moment, or fail to capture its gravity, and you run the risk of letting down your guard in the face of chaos. Choose words that are hyperbolic or extreme, and you risk becoming like the boy who cried wolf or someone more interested in social media clicks than enlightenment.
As such, it’s essential to use words as precisely as possible. No, not every politician with whom you disagree, even when they do truly horrible things, is a fascist, let alone a Nazi; and they are almost certainly not the literal equivalent of Hitler. On the other side, calling everyone who believes in government-guaranteed health care a Stalinist is an abuse of language (and history) that obscures far more than it illuminates.
In the wake of the Capitol siege commenced by Trump’s hardest of hardcore supporters, there is some debate among liberals and the left about whether we should refer to the MAGA faithful there as terrorists. While the term has found easy purchase for most, some caution against its deployment, not because it might not fit in the technical sense, but because it is a concept that has been typically weaponized against marginalized groups. As such, they warn, popularizing such language risks its use against these usual suspects again. Despite the good intentions of those who call the devout Trumpsters terrorists, it will ultimately be Black and brown folks, and especially Muslims, who pay the price.
And while there is a good argument against not passing new domestic terrorism laws to cover what happened last week — sufficient laws exist now to prosecute these actions without creating a new designation that would likely be applied against marginalized communities — that is not a reason to avoid using the term itself in popular discourse.
In fact, it is precisely this misuse of the term — its selective application to racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious others — that necessitates its deployment here. Only by doing so might we begin to decouple the concept of terrorism from the image currently held of it: namely, an activity engaged in by persons of color or by those who are other than Christian. Withholding this term’s application for fear of how others might use it ignores that they are already using it that way and will continue to do so, no matter if we insist on its usage here. Indeed, refusing to apply the notion of terrorism to white right-wingers even when it fits will only allow those intent on wielding it in the traditional fashion to do so unmolested.
Truthfully, there is no term we could conjure for the MAGA mob that hasn’t been misused by the political right. Whether terrorists, seditious insurrectionists, or just plain criminals — all are concepts that have been weaponized by the right against the Black and brown. To suggest we can’t use accurate words because those words might be misused is to imbue the words with a magical power they do not possess. It is not the words that are the problem, but our racist, classist, and religiously chauvinistic ways of deploying them.
Perhaps by utilizing them more capaciously, we can strike a blow for linguistic accuracy and ensure that the mental image of a terrorist in the public mind is shaken up and dislodged. Perhaps by applying it so that whiteness cannot escape its grip, we can arrive at a place where the notion of terrorism is based on the actions of those perpetrating it rather than their color or their cause.
The definition, as it turns out, is relatively straightforward. According to the U.S. Code, terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Further, as per the Code of Federal Regulations, it typically involves “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Is this definition broad enough to allow for misapplication? Of course. But so are any other words that form the basis for criminal prosecution in this country, from sedition to riot to the term crime itself. So yes, one could imagine reactionaries insisting upon its application to Black Lives Matter protesters because of some of the property destruction that occurred this past summer. But the fact is, they already use the term, irrespective of our willingness to make use of it with reference to the Capitol mob. And that property destruction, which was at no point the intention of racial justice activists— as opposed to the sacking of the Capitol which was the expressed goal of the January 6th insurgents — was hardly comparable to violence aimed at the seat of government.
Although we might do well to insist upon a more narrowly constructed and precise definition of the concept, it seems that whatever definition we fixed upon would be sufficiently broad to encompass an attack on a nation’s main legislative body, whereas the burning of an AutoZone, however unjustified and absurd, likely would not. But ultimately, and despite the potential for misuse, such a risk is no reason not to use a word where it applies. And when it comes to the definition of a terrorist, if the MAGA hat fits, then those donning it while attacking the seat of government need to go ahead and wear it.