Dangerous definitions

Airplane violence against Austin IRS office provokes a parsing of words.

Joe StackâÄôs cynical attack on an IRS office building Thursday at least has America talking semantics. One Wall Street Journal headline inquired, âÄúAustin plane crash: suicide or terrorism?âÄù An L.A. Times headline focused on StackâÄôs ideology, âÄúManifesto of a âĦ terrorist?âÄù The wordâÄôs origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates to the 1793-4 Red Terror in Revolutionary France; hence the first of two entries, âÄúgovernment by intimidation.âÄù A second, more versatile inflection began to circulate heavily after World War II: âÄúa policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; âĦ the condition of being terrorized.âÄù Ultimately, the public reserves the right to determine whether or not a given action instills public terror, and it is rarely if ever in the publicâÄôs interest to fear. For those inclined toward arithmetic, heart disease has killed at least 1000 times more Americans in the past decade than terrorism, excluding war death. With rights already being destroyed in the name of some mythic security, The Washington Post headline reminds us how calming Franklin RooseveltâÄôs famous axiom can be: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. As to its original impetus, Gail Collins of The New York Times wonders if the âÄúhuge number of TV, radio and Internet outletsâÄù competing for attention has attracted loud, shrill communication. Certainly airplane terror is more gripping than airplane violence. But StackâÄôs status as a terrorist is insignificant. What matters is whether or not we consent to allow the word terrorism to fill space formerly reserved to violence. The latter is real; the former is sensational. In the end, there is little reason to suggest violence is more spectacular than it really is.