linguistic anthropology

The linguistic construction of terrorists

What do the following headlines have in common?

All of them contrast terrorism with something else, and in doing so, they make claims about what terrorism is, and is not. The first tells us that White supremacists are not terrorists. The second tells us that gun violence is not terrorism. And the third tells us that Americans are not terrorists.


What then, is terrorism? What are terrorists?

According to the FBI, to be considered domestic terrorism, an act requires the following three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

By this logic, all of the acts described above are terrorist.


Even those writers who consider mass shooters terrorists do so in a way that treats them as the exception rather than the rule. What do I mean?

Consider these headlines:

What they have in common is adjectives modifying the word “terrorist.” Specifically, the words “White” or “Christian.”

That’s because Christian terrorists, or White terrorists, are what’s known as a marked category: they’re a special case, not what’s assumed.


Markedness is a way of talking about oppositions. That’s because oppositions are socially asymmetrical, with one element taken for granted or “normal” and the other seen as a special case. The element that’s seen as normal or natural is unmarked, while the one that’s remarkable is marked.

A few examples: we talk about scissors and left-handed scissorsdoctors and woman doctorsmarriage and gay marriage. Left-handed scissors are a type of scissors, but prototypical scissors are right-handed. Woman doctors are a type of doctor, but prototypical doctors are men. Gay marriage is a type of marriage, but prototypical marriage is straight.

Markedness, at its base, encodes ideas about what is normal. And “normal” is, by definition, exclusionary. Marked terms are more specific than unmarked ones. (“He” is used as a generic pronoun, while “she” almost never is.) Markedness is also culturally-specific, and context-specific. And I’m talking about the linguistic construction of terrorism in the United States in 2015.


Let’s return to those last three headlines:

If White terrorist is to terrorist as left-handed scissors is to scissors, what’s a terrorist? If Christian terrorist is to terrorist as woman doctor is to doctor, what’s a terrorist?

What does our unwillingness to call these people terrorists at all, or our need to qualify it when we do, say?


Further reading: Why White People Aren’t Called “Terrorist”

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