“T is for Terrorism” — or “Treason”?

In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

–George Orwell, “Politics and English Language”

Curious about the just-released flick, “V is for Vendetta,” I read a couple reviews. And I saw something in them that just doesn’t sit right.

Here’s the lead from The New Yorker review written by David Denby (emphasis mine):

V for Vendetta,” a dunderheaded pop fantasia that celebrates terrorism and destruction, is perhaps the ultimate example of how a project with modest origins becomes a media monster.

NPR’s Bob Mondello:

A graphic-novel-based fantasy that cribs plot points and visuals from multiple sources. It mistakes terrorism for revolution and allows the Wachowski Brothers to climb about halfway back out of the hole they dug for themselves in the last two Matrix movies.

It’s this repeated message that the movie glorifies or promotes terrorism that irks me. Why? Isn’t the movie a violent political revenge fantasy? Isn’t “V” blowing sh*t up, killing people in response to a political situation? Isn’t it “terrorism”?

Yeah, but…

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” wrote George Orwell in his 1946 essay, “Politics and English Language,” whose words resonate with equal force today.

We’re all familiar with how the Bush administration has abused language in order to justify its policies. Phrases like “collateral damage,” “insurgency,” and “bunker buster” are examples of the type of euphemisms Orwell mentions government uses to soften otherwise heinous policy.

But more interesting – to me, anyway – is the concept of Orwell’s “meaningless” words, words that have been used so much and given so many different meanings that they have lost their meanings.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

One example of a word rendered meaningless by the current US government is “torture.” Thanks in part to current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’ now infamous “torture memo,” which redefined torture in legal terms favorable to the administration’s interrogation techniques, government officials could stare blankly into a camera and claim they were not using “torture” at the same time US prisoners were being water-boarded, kept awake for forty hours at a time, isolated, beaten, maimed, threatened with rape, given electric shocks, etc. “Torture” is now meaningless.

And then there’s “terrorism.” “Terrorism” is used incessantly by the administration and its ideological supporters to conjure fear, to subdue popular opinion while pursuing legally questionable policy. We’re invading Iraq? Yes, to fight “terror” there so we won’t have to fight it here. The NSA is conducting domestic wiretapping? Yes, to combat “terrorists.” We’re torturing prisoners? No, we’re torturing “terrorists.” In this usage, “terror” is a substitute for abstract and indefinable words that evoke negative emotion – like “evil” (another favorite of Bush’s). Don’t like somebody? Call her a “terrorist,” and there’s no defending her.

If dumbing down the word “terrorism” wasn’t enough for the administration, they also set out to redefine the word to include just about any anti-government activity. Here’s how the Patriot Act defines “domestic terrorism” (section 802):

…the term `domestic terrorism' means activities that…involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; …and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.'.

Under this definition, MLK’s non-violent protests against racial segregation would be considered acts of “terror.” Any gathering of a crowd could be seen as “dangerous to human life,” especially if the police trundles out the riot gear and disperses the crowd. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the authorities’ reaction to a protest is what most often creates danger.)

We may not always agree with a group’s methods of protest – I’m thinking of PETA or Earth First – but few of us consider those groups “terrorist” organizations. Right now, anyway.

By expanding the meaning of “terror,” by using it as a substitute for “evil,” the administration has made the word amorphous, pliable, ready to shape it for whatever purpose it wants.

Enter “The War on Terror.”

Which means that the administration can dictate what it’s fighting, can change its “war” goals at any time, and can effectively pursue its Quixotic ambitions in perpetuity.


As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

“Terrorism” has become one of Orwell’s prefabricated parts of the administration’s henhouse.

Which brings me back to “V is for Vendetta.”

By saying, like David Denby, that the movie “celebrates” terrorism, or, like Mondello, that the movie “mistakes terrorism for revolution,” the critics are claiming – probably unconsciously – that watching the movie is an act of treason. That to even fantasize about responding violently to a political situation is treasonous.

But I think discussing or contemplating violence against authority is perfectly legitimate. When is it, for example, okay to respond with action to a government? Most Americans feel that the French resistance in WWII was not only legitimate, but heroic. Most Americans glorify “The Sons of Liberty” and other like-minded domestic terrorist organizations. There’s a general bewilderment that European Jews didn’t respond violently to Nazi oppression in the 1930s and 1940s.

We liked “Munich” and “Lethal Weapon” and didn’t consider those movies treasonous.

Is terrorism ever acceptable?

You know, I’m a little nervous even writing those words. And to me that’s what’s wrong.

Update: Thanks to Gerik for pointing out that "V for Vendetta" is fostering debate on violence in politics over in the comments of a piece on the Huffington Post.


  1. touchstone,

    stop by huff post for some like minded discussion.


  2. Under this definition, MLK’s non-violent protests against racial segregation would be considered acts of “terror.” Any gathering of a crowd could be seen as “dangerous to human life,” especially if the police trundles out the riot gear and disperses the crowd. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the authorities’ reaction to a protest is what most often creates danger.)

    I don’t think that’s correct. Under the definition, an act must meet one of the three conditions listed in 5.B along with the conditions of 5.A and 5.C. It would be very difficult to interpret MLK’s protests or any protest as attempting to intimidate or coerce anyone. Even if you could say some protests involve danger to human life, most protests do not violate any laws, leaving 5.A unmet, as well.

  3. First, King often deliberately broke local laws. His protests were often forbidden, but he would send his marchers out anyway. In fact, that was part of his methodology…he wanted to have peaceful, but illegal, protests to force a poor reaction from local authorities and to fill the local jails. He, himself, landed in jail more than few times. Once he sent children out on a march (I can’t remember which city this was), knowing they’d be attacked by local police…

    At the time, a lot of people disagreed strongly with MLK’s protests, saying they were rushing civil rights on a country that wasn’t ready. He was seen as a dangerous radical by many, including the FBI.

    By breaking the law and trying to force a minority opinion on a majority through illegal confrontations in which many were injured…seems to fit the Patriot Act’s definitions easily.

  1. 1 4&20 blackbirds » Blog Archive » Creep: Martin E. Weinstein

    […] The Patriot Act, of course, does not use such strong and clear language to discourage dissent. Instead, it defines “terrorist” in such vague terms – then denies basic civil liberties for those accused of terrorism – that just about anybody who participates in a protest against the government could fall under that definition. (See an earlier post for the language of the Patriot act in defining “terrorist.”) […]

  2. 2 4&20 blackbirds » Blog Archive » “V is for Va-Voom!”

    […] The “terror” thing […]

  3. 3 4&20 blackbirds » Blog Archive » Zarqawi’s death welcome, but not end to war

    […] The news of Zarqawi’s assassination is certainly welcome, even if the rumors are true that he was turned in by his own people. He was a terrorist in the true sense of the word (as opposed to the Bush administration’s version), and his end is justified. […]

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