Terminology Across the Political Divide

I want to address the way we use words to describe our political differences, in contemporary America. Specifically, I want to discuss the deep asymetry of how we use these words, depending on which side of the political spectrum is being discussed. There have always been some differences, related to the spectrum itself: words such as "liberal", "conservative", "radical", "reactionary", even "left" and "right", are obviously aimed in particular directions, and that's useful, because it's nice to have the ability to indicate political leanings. These words are generalizations, of course: not all conservatives have exactly the same political views. Not all liberals have exactly the same political views. But the terms are useful anyway.

But those are not the terminology differences I'm talking about.

One group (or part of a group) of protesters this year went beyond the original peaceful protest activity, siezed control of several blocks in the downtown area of a major city, and held it for more than a week. Another group (or, again, part of a group) of protesters elsewhere in the country, later in the year, went beyond the original peaceful protest activity, siezed control of a government building, and held it for a couple of hours. These are in many ways remarkably similar events. But we describe them with very different terminology. In the one case, we mostly call the participants "demonstrators", "protesters", and only occasionally say "rioters", perhaps because we're afraid that if we call them rioters, we'll be labeled as racists. In the other case, we rarely call the participants anything so downplayed as "rioters", instead reaching for breathless hyperbole: they are "domestic terrorists", and it's "insurrection" and possibly even "treason".

I want to be clear that I'm not excusing what was done in either case: both groups of rioters should be prosecuted for rioting, for the destruction of property that they caused, and for the disruption to public life. (In both cases here, I'm talking only about the persons who participated in the violent siezing and occupation of areas. The peaceful protest marches, in both cases, would've been fine, if things hadn't gone so much further; and of course we cannot prosecute anyone for peacefully marching down a street carrying a sign: that's a constitutionally protected freedom. Even if what's written on the sign is wrong, it's still a constitutionally protected freedom.)

In cases where people were harmed (which did happen: mostly it was the rioters themselves, and at least in the second case some of the responding police officers), the rioters should be held accountable for that as well. If there were deliberate killings, I'm not aware of it; but if there were, then murder charges would be appropriate. For accidental killings, there's another charge, manslaughter; when it happens during the commmission of another crime, such as rioting, that may be aggravated manslaughter. Criminals should be prosecuted for the crimes they committed.

But it's not right to just pick out random (or perhaps not so random) other crimes, crimes that were not in fact committed or even contemplated, and attempt to apply them arbitrarily. "Treason", to pick out one particularly egregious example, has a fairly particular definition under US law. Treason is when a person who owes allegiance to the United States (for example, by virtue of having sworn an oath to defend it, or by being a member of the US armed forces; merely being a citizen is not the standard here) gives material comfort or aid to an enemy nation, i.e., a foreign country with which we are at war. Note that acting against the government, or against current political officers of the United States, is not treason. Assasinating the President, for example, would not be treason. It'd be a very serious crime, but it wouldn't be treason. Treason is when you act not against individuals or the government, but against the entire nation, betraying your country to an enemy power, when you are supposed to be defending it. At least, that's what it is under US law. So for example if a high-ranking military or government official sells military secrets to the commies, that's treason. If some loon shoots the President, that's not treason. It's a different crime and, legally speaking, a less serious one, though still plenty serious enough to warrant the death penalty. Let me be perfectly clear: if the rioters had somehow managed to get an assault rifle into an active session of Congress and shot a bunch of Senators and Representatives, that would be on the one hand a much, much more serious crime than what they did; but on the other hand, it *still* wouldn't qualify as treason under US law. It would be mass murder among other things, and the people who did it would be in some very serious legal trouble; but it would not be treason.

The definition of terrorism is not quite so narrow, but fundamentally terrorism is about terror: mailing out envelopes of anthrax so that people are afraid to get the mail; crashing planes into buildings so that people are afraid to fly in a plane or work in a tall building; blowing up truck bombs in public places so that people are afraid to go out in public; setting fire to elementary schools so that people are afraid to send their kinds to school; these are all examples of terrorism, and they all have one thing in common: they scare not just the people who are directly involved, but people all over the country who are worried something similar might happen to them. That's what terrorism is. If you aren't at least attempting to frighten the population, then whatever you're doing isn't terrorism. Forcing your way past a police barrier and into a government building, isn't terrorism. It's tresspassing and destruction of property, and if you do it as part of an unruly mob it's rioting, and when the police try to stop you and you keep going that adds several additional charges, and if some people in the mob and/or some of the police officers involved become injured or killed, that adds yet more (increasingly serious) charges. But none of those charges are the same as terrorism.

When you call ordinary rioters "terrorists" or "insurrectionists" or call their actions "treason", you are ignoring the actual meanings of words and making up random claptrap; and you are accusing people of various serious capital offenses (markedly more serious than mere first degree murder), who are in fact guilty only of various non-capital offenses, with maximum sentences involving prison time. Maybe you're doing it to be dramatic, or maybe you're doing it to be persuasive, but whatever the reason is, what you're doing is wrong. You're slandering (or in print committing libel against) the criminals, by accusing them of much more serious crimes than they've actually committed. Whatever political point you're trying to make does not give you the right to just accuse people of things you know perfectly well they did not actually do. It's deceptive, dishonest, disingenuous, wrong, and illegal (or at least legally actionable in civil court, i.e., you can be sued for a lot of money for doing it). It also turns the criminals into victims, which is really unfortunate; I don't like to be in the position of defending criminals. I know there are people whose whole job is defending criminals, but I didn't sign up for that. Please stop making me do it.