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The Boston Globe



Words in a time of trauma

We’re watching television. There’s nothing new to report, but we can’t seem to turn it off. We want information, insight, words that will help make sense of something frightening and mysterious. Words are being thrown around, but the more they are used, the more layered and elusive their meanings become.

Terror. In its simplest sense, the word means fear. But no one uses it in its simplest sense anymore. It has political overtones and an inflammatory effect. Since the days of the French Revolution, the word “terror” when spoken in public discourse has referred to organized acts of violence designed to intimidate and demoralize a civilian population. Since 9/11, “terror” has taken on such incendiary connotations that the word itself has become synonymous with “the enemy”; we are fighting a war against it, even if we don’t fully know where it exists, when it will strike, or whom it represents. The word terrorism has certain overtones, and its use can incite hatred and violence of a certain kind. It has implications of foreignness. When President Obama spoke publicly a few hours after the Marathon bombings, he avoided the word “terrorism,” and commentators pounced, ignoring his pointed statement that we didn’t really know much yet. Sometimes a single word, in its use or omission, acquires so much meaning that entire views of the world, and possible courses of action, are embedded in it.

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