Time To Stop Saying Terrorists Have 'Been Radicalised'

04/10/2016 16:25
POOL New / Reuters

If someone has been given a dose of anaesthetic, when they are unconscious we say they 'have been anaesthetised'. If there's a traumatic event which happens to someone, we'd say they 'have been traumatised'.

Likewise, if someone were to say horrible things about me behind my back (something which, I'm sure you'll understand, is incredibly rare in politics), you might say that I 'have been demonised' or that I 'have been vilified'.

The 'have been' is passive. It describes something which happens to you, not something which you do yourself. If I say I have been shaved, it implies that someone else has done it - otherwise I would have said I'd shaved.

So why, when someone knowingly and deliberately chooses to embrace a cancerous and poisonous ideology which has been responsible for mass murder and attempted genocide, do we act as though they're passive bystanders and say they 'have been radicalised'? This form of words perniciously removes a sense of responsibility from those who choose evil over good, of their own free will. It's not as though we look at a burglar, arsonist or drug dealer and say 'they have been criminalised'. We simply call them criminals. If they've come from a difficult background we might sympathise with that, and indeed we might very well want to improve the quality of life for others in similar situations, but we recognise that many people faced with similar troubles choose of their own volition an honest life rather than one of crime.

Just before writing this article I spotted a newspaper report on a court case. The accused had admitted sending money to a family member who was in a terrorist organisation, prompting the paper to wonder if they'd been radicalised. Then they quoted the defence solicitors as intending to argue in mitigation that they had been radicalised. The prosecution would argue that it didn't matter whether they'd been radicalised or not; a crime is a crime. Finally the prosecution would argue that they had indeed been radicalised.

At no point did anyone actually point out the blindingly obvious: the whole reason that a case goes to court (at least if guilt isn't in doubt, like in this case) is that people have to take responsibility for their own actions. Yet everyone - newspaper, prosecution, defence - all continued to use this form of words which casually implies reduced responsibility.

This is all part of the 'victim culture' which is becoming perniciously and insidiously embedded in our society. If every bad thing which is done by any individual is portrayed as being a product of their surroundings, it limits everyone's responsibility for their own actions. But that in turn is to limit our humanity, to limit acceptance of our choices to be who we want to be, the choice to persevere in the face of adversity, and the choice to realise our potential rather than wallow in our own problems.

Language is a powerful thing. The words that we use subtly shape the understanding of what we're saying. I agonised over whether to write 'pernicious' or 'insidious' earlier in this article because of the subtle shades in meaning that these convey. "But", the person sitting next to me argued, "some people won't know what those words mean". Perhaps she's wrong, in which case no problem. Or perhaps she's right, in which case there'll be dictionary-consulting and google-crawling to be done. I wanted to paint the harm element of perniciousness alongside the subversive nature of insidiousness; in the end I chose both.

The right words convey a meaning with power; weasel words cower from the truth. The idea that someone 'has been radicalised' may pass us by with barely a thought, yet the meaning that it implies begins to creep into the public consciousness. Let's not let politically correct language mar the debate about how we fight against radical extremism in our society.

That's pretty much all there is to say. I hope you have been edified.