Friday, January 8, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Terror

By Baynard Woods

Jim DeMint recently criticized President Obama saying that “there is no question that the president has downplayed the risk of terror since he took office.”

When CNN’s Campbell Brown asked DeMint how Obama has downplayed the risk of terror, at first the senator looked a little befuddled. Then he puffed out, “Well,” and paused for something that was almost a laugh, “it begins with not even being willing to use the word.”

Of course, it was determined that DeMint was entirely off base and he actually came close to something like an apology, saying that Obama was actually “using the right approach” to terror.  So, DeMint’s claim tells us nothing about Barack Obama, but it can tell us a great deal about Jim DeMint. Remember, before he entered politics, DeMint was an ad executive and owned his own marketing research firm. In this context it is easy to see that DeMint was pushing a particular word in order to defend and redefine a brand.  But what word was it?

One would think that the word would be “terrorism” and the “terrorists” who practice it. But the word that DeMint used was not “terrorism” but “terror.”  The distinction may not seem important. But it is DeMint who is obsessed with the ways that we talk about terror. So we must ask both why he uses the word “terror” instead of “terrorism” in this context and what he means when he said that Obama “downplays” it.

The word “terror” is important for Republican branding because the “War” is not on “Terrorism” or “Terrorists” but on “Terror.”  Terror is a psychological state that terrorism attempts to produce.

In order to fight a war on terror, the public needs to be effectively terrified, or, by

definition, there is nothing to fight against. If we are not terrified, then the terrorists are just criminals. So, when DeMint says that Obama is downplaying terror, he means that he does not take the approach to terrorists that will produce the maximum amount of terror in the American people. DeMint has effectively invested his political future in your fear. If you are not afraid, he will not win. It is that simple.

The word “terror” has a certain majesty to it. Edmund Burke, the real founder of Conservatism, linked terror to the sublime. In order to feel terror, something must be immense and somewhat grand. I will admit I felt terror on the morning of September 11, 2001. But I did not feel terror this Christmas. I would have if I were on the Northwest flight 253—sure. Just as I would have were I on the famous Sullenberger flight (the plane that was successfully ditched in the Hudson River last year). Flying is dangerous. The government does its best to keep terrorists off our planes. But we ought to be grateful that our citizens were strong enough and brave enough to respond to the threat.

This is where DeMint’s position becomes philosophically murky. He constantly rails against government effectiveness. He claims that government is inefficient—not because of a particular administration, but by nature. Yet, in this case, he expected the government to be perfect, while downplaying the effectiveness of citizen action. Why did he downplay citizen action? Because it downplays terror. If we are relatively effective at fighting terrorists—after all, we caught this clown—then we are not as scared.

If a “terrorist” is one who uses violence to produce terror in a populace in order to achieve some political end, perhaps we ought to use the word “terrortician” to refer to politicians like DeMint who use rhetoric to create terror in the populace for political ends.

Terrorticians like DeMint actually help the terrorists. For instance, right now, every terrorist in the world knows that there is no chief of the TSA because of Jim DeMint.

DeMint is afraid that Erroll Southers—Obama’s appointment to head the TSA—will unionize the agency.  He called the Underwear Bomber “a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA.”

The connection isn’t clear. It would be much easier to say that the events of Christmas day are a perfect example of why DeMint should allow the confirmation of Southers as head of TSA.

But DeMint has a great deal to gain by this gambit. His voice sounds so weird when he talks about the TSA because his mouth is full of drool. Imagine the Republican paradise where unions were considered terrorists. DeMint’s attacks are often petty, but his designs are grand.

Baynard Woods’ book “Coffin Point: Legend of the Witchdoctor Sheriff” will be released by River City this year.


  1. I am glad someone in this town calls out this douche bag.

  2. don't take demint's crap lying down. question him, push him to say something definitive, ask him for facts and then follow up. check his facts. this state and this nation are in trouble because we don't question enough. politicians and so-called news reporters can make outrageous claims and never get called out. and, they know it. they know they can say anything they want and never have to answer for it. critical thinking is just about dead and our democracy along with it.

  3. I've been reading your columns for a while now, and while I have enjoyed them all, this is the best one yet.