I was disapointed by the Beat the Press segment “Are they pirates? Or terrorists?” from WGBH‘s Greater Boston. The normally intelligent group of journalists manages to convince themselves that the Somali pirates should be described as “terrorists,” rather than pirates. This completely butchers the meaning of terrorist – someone who uses violence and intimidation to further a political goal. From all reports, it seems absolutely clear that the Somali pirates are not terrorist. Their only goal is ransom money. They have no political aims.
“Terrorist” has become a common epithet (like Captain Haddock‘s “Visigoths!“), but I would have expected seasoned journalists to defend the meaning of words, rather than distort them. I understand the motivation behind the segment. The word “pirate” has been so romanticized by movies and popular culture, that it seems too soft to describe real-life organized gangs of water-borne hijacking extortionists. However, the same problem applies to other romanticized words like mobster and cowboy, and the press manages to write about them without the need to mangle the language.
I don’t know of a perfect way to name these villains, but diluting the meaning of “terrorist” won’t help.