In recent months, terrorism has been repeatedly thrust to the forefront of public consciousness. Conjuring images of shooting in a crowded nightclub or explosions in a busy airport terminal, it constitutes one of society’s most evocative issues. It has fuelled the sometimes explosive growth of far-right parties across the European Union – acting everywhere as an impetus for action regardless of political orientation. Both Americans and Europeans rate it as the most important security problem facing their respective countries by an overwhelming margin, yet there is little agreement on how to fight it, or more importantly, what it actually is.

There is nowhere that this is more apparent than in the United States. The 12 June shooting in Orlando, Florida, the deadliest in US history, was perpetrated by a Muslim in a gay nightclub with legally purchased weapons. Though American politicians immediately took to Twitter and elsewhere to give statements about the attack, no two seemed in agreement on which interpretation to take.

President Obama lamented the violence as a hate crime directed at gays, and once again underscored the importance of gun control. Calling for tighter legislation, members of the President’s party staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives, at times exchanging words with Republican members, one of whom exclaimed ‘Radical Islam killed these people!’ Similarly, Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump criticised the President for not implicating ‘radical Islam.’ He and others placed blame directly on ISIS and, controversially, on the President. This stark polarization is mirrored among Americans themselves – polls show almost 80 per cent of Republicans view the event primarily as an act of Islamic terrorism, while some 60 per cent of Democrats see it primarily as an act of domestic gun violence.

Dannel Malloy

Image courtesy of Dannel Malloy, © 2016, some rights reserved.

This is not confined to the United States. Europe is also sharply divided along party lines; in the United Kingdom, 39 per cent of Labour voters believe refugees bring terrorism with them, compared to almost 90 per cent of those voting for the right-wing UK Independence Party. The same is true in France, where 85 per cent of voters for the similarly aligned National Front hold such a view, against 31 per cent of Socialist party voters. The data show a similarly partisan correlation on negative views of Muslims more generally.

Even Germany, once famed for its dry centrist politics, has been growing more polarized on the issue of terrorism. The anti-immigration and anti-Islam party Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland, AfD) has risen from relative obscurity to command decisive pluralities and perhaps future majorities in elections in the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin. Though against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy from the outset, they have, judging by their results, successfully incorporated recent terrorist attacks into their platform. Recent statements use the attacks, especially a 24 July suicide bombing in Ansbach, as evidence of the failure of multiculturalism, the need for a more prompt policy on deportation, and the need for the abolition of double citizenship.

The Chancellor, on the other hand, has recently emphasised her position that terrorism is not a phenomenon brought by refugees into Germany. Speaking on the 22 July shooting in Munich, her words echoed President Obama’s when she spoke instead of the shooter’s acquisition of his weapon through the Internet and the need to adapt to digitalisation and social media. The AfD’s position appears to resonate more closely with Germans however, 60 per cent of whom link refugees and terrorism.

Hidden in these exchanges is something more complex than partisan politics. Terrorism both reflects and is used as a weapon in larger debates within society – an issue all parties need to address. Rather than just commanding attention, the concept of terrorism has a unique ability to provoke extreme emotion, absorbing, subsuming, and consequently vastly oversimplifying. In doing so, it hides issues fundamental to morality in our society underneath the veneer of a single issue. The long-running and supremely polarized debate over gun control in the United States has, especially since Orlando, become in part a debate over ‘giving weapons to terrorists.’ Similarly, important debates about cultural values, integration, and multiculturalism in Germany have been reduced to a question of whether Muslims in Germany constitute a threat.

Nothing encapsulates this better than the Munich shooting. The perpetrator, though of Iranian descent, was a mentally ill youth with no connection whatsoever to ISIS or terrorism. Obsessed with bullying and other mass shootings, he actually targeted those of Turkish and Arab descent. Based on the reactions of politicians and many in the media, this would hardly be apparent. Before any concrete information about the shooter was known, AfD representatives, including its chairwoman, rushed to Twitter to thank the Chancellor for ‘terror in Germany and Europe’ and ‘the new normal.’ Discussions then and since, whether in the media or popular discourse, have included Munich, without justification, as part of a greater threat facing Germany.

Even those events that actually can be said to constitute terrorism have been merged into a single, unitary, ‘it’ – despite the somewhat dubious nature of many attackers’ pledges of allegiance to ISIS, many have assumed them to be one and the same. Bringing all perpetrators of public violence, Muslim and not, into the same sphere of terrorism is counterproductive – counter-terrorism efforts against trained Jihadists must be different from those against mentally ill, disenfranchised or disaffected domestic youths. As the confluence of multiple separate phenomena, terrorism must be viewed as appropriately complex and multifaceted.

Furthermore, creating a fundamental connection between terrorism and other complex issues, such as citizenship or secularism, is doubly dangerous and counterproductive. In France, the threat of terror has been invoked in the country’s on-going discussion of public secularism; as shown in the recent debacle over the ‘burkini,’ it draws such an importance that it even has a role to play in women’s bathing attire. Debates about issues like gun regulation or public morality should be held on their own merits, rather than their role in some greater ‘us versus them’ war on terror. Such dichotomous thinking is dangerous. In the United States, for instance, few seem cognisant of the possibility that Orlando could have been the result of both radical Islam and readily available guns.

What is at stake in this debate is something at the heart of our conception of reality – just as much as morality, culture or religion, terrorism is a social construct, which carries only as much meaning and importance as we ascribe to it. Using terrorism as a rhetorical cover for other political views endangers more than just rhetorical correctness; the future moral coherency of our society hinges on unravelling the tangled web of meaning associated with the word ‘terrorism.’