The June 12 attack that killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, sparked a war over wording. The debate is about more than semantics, and it extends far beyond the U.S.
It was a hate crime or a mass shooting. It was the work of a "mentally disturbed individual" or a radicalized "lone wolf." Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, blasted U.S. President Barack Obama for refusing to call it "radical Islamic terrorism" -- perhaps to justify his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Obama called it all "a political distraction."
The gunman called himself an Islamic soldier loyal to the Islamic State group. But the FBI initially declined to release the full transcripts of the killer's calls to police, saying the shooter "does not represent the religion of Islam, but a perverted view."
Labeling people, groups or acts of violence is always fraught with underlying connotations. I learned as much as a foreign correspondent for nearly three decades, covering some of the world's most volatile trouble spots and having to navigate the lexicon of Asia's authoritarian regimes -- all while trying to hew to a vanishing middle line of objectivity. Labels, invested with darker meanings, can become a verbal minefield.
In the Philippines in the 1980s, coup-plotting dissident soldiers likened themselves to military "reformists," never "mutineers." I called them "rebel soldiers." Communist guerrillas, meanwhile, were regularly characterized as "freedom fighters," even as they ambushed army patrols and assassinated government officials -- acts that today would be defined as "terrorism." The corruption of the old Ferdinand Marcos regime and the country's endemic poverty drove many urban teenagers, academics and even Catholic priests to join the rebellion. They called themselves the "New People's Army."
Traveling in Vietnam in the decade after the end of the war, I learned that the "Fall of Saigon" was to be referred to only as "the Liberation" or "the Unification." I had grown up watching televised images of "the Vietnam War," but official Communist parlance even now refers to "the War of American Aggression."
MORE THAN WORDS In war, the victor determines the name -- except, it seems, in the U.S., where the Civil War is known in the South as "the War Between the States" or "the War of Northern Aggression." More accurate might be "the War of Southern Insurrection to Maintain Black Slavery."
In Indonesia, I found myself banned from the country for nearly two years -- for incorrect labeling. In an article about the country's economy, I wrote that President Suharto, an army general, took power after a 1965 coup. I was only allowed back in after a stern lecture from a senior Indonesian intelligence officer who informed me that Suharto only reluctantly took power after an aborted Communist coup. My bad.
Perhaps nowhere is labeling -- and defining terrorism -- more fraught than in the Middle East. As Palestinians escalated their deadly suicide bombings and rocket fire on Israel during the Second Intifada, I was constantly harangued by Israelis and their supporters for calling the attackers "gunmen" and "militants." Why didn't I call them "terrorists"? My reason was straightforward: Israelis indeed face a terrorism threat, but Palestinians believe they are fighting an illegal Israeli occupation.
The "terrorist" label really came into vogue after the 9/11 attacks, when then-U.S. President George W. Bush declared: "Either you're with us, or you're with the terrorists." Then Chinese President Jiang Zemin cannily convinced the U.S. to label the Muslim Uighur separatists in Xinjiang a "terrorist organization."
China's Communist leaders are the masters at creating their own lexicon, promulgated through tedious repetition. Tibetan followers of the Dalai Lama are invariably "criminals" of "the Dalai clique." The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is "the June 4th Incident." Taiwanese who support independence are "splitists," wanting to "split" the motherland. And there are regular dire warnings against "outside forces" and "foreign meddling."
Controlling the terminology is the first step in setting the contours of the debate.
If someone insists on using a certain label -- be it Trump with his excoriations against "radical Islamic terrorism" or Beijing's propaganda machine blasting Xinjiang "terrorists" or "outside forces" -- there's always an agenda behind the phraseology.
Better to avoid the verbal quagmire and let actions speak for themselves. Anyone who walks into a nightclub and slaughters 49 innocent people is a deranged killer. It is an act of terror and an atrocity. It matters far less what we label the murderer.
Keith Richburg is an Asian-based writer and former foreign editor of the Washington Post.