Us vs. Them: How Labels Affect Terrorism

12 Oct 2017

Inaccurate descriptions of extremists and terrorists segregates them into a polarised category, which creates division, inhibits debate, and distracts counter-terrorism. 

Image Credit: Foreign Affairs


Why is it happening ?

When addressing terrorism globally, political agents use distancing rhetoric to divide them from the rest of us, questioning their humanity, rationality, and morality. Such segregation complicates understanding the causes of extremism, because it eliminates from debates the human stories. Thus it blurs chances of finding piecemeal ways to stop terrorism.


Conversations identifying extremists as outsiders create more animosity than clarify the issue and stop attacks. The problem is similar to echo chambers: political language encourages taking sides. In a time when people feel more at risk from terror attacks than ever, the world experiences record numbers of terror arrests and the heated subsequent news coverage on the issue. The divisive definition of us vs. them worsens tensions and decreases counter-terrorism efficiency.


Why does it matter?

Condemning terrorism is vital. But labelling perpetrators as an alien them against us victims does more harm than mitigate and prevent radicalisation. Reacting to terrorism with identity-based labeling overstates the prevalence of terrorist attacks and escalates violence along the lines of divisive language.


Differentiating terrorists as 'them' strengthens their resolve and spreads divisive messages to those sympathetic to their cause. It divides and marginalizes whole communities that the public discourse might associate with the attackers. The ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric silences criticism and dissent about mass crackdowns on communities and on the war on terror, as after 9/11.


‘Us vs them’ creates a suspect community that fosters negative stereotypes hampering constructive dialogue. This means entire cultures receive undue public and government scrutiny, as happened in Northern Ireland and now happens to Muslims. Understanding others’ circumstances develops compromise. Because understanding predisposes empathy, sharing others’ feelings heals pain. Such efforts are key for cultures and faiths to coexist in a multicultural global society.


What can you do about it?

Counter-terrorism policy should address grievances of disillusioned members of society to cure domestic and foreign radicalization. Global discourse on terrorism must be inclusive and educative to breed transparency, efficiency, and highlight the causes of radicalization.


Millennials should avoid divisive language in debates at home, at school, and at work. Questioning common media discourse on terrorism is key to break down anti-Muslim rhetoric.


There is much research on terrorism to explore to foster understanding. Marc Sageman’s book Misunderstanding Terrorism deepens understanding on this complex issue. So does Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, and Joby Warrick’s Black Flags. Likewise, the BBC covers two teenagers’ stories of whom the so-called Islamic State recruited. Zak Ebrahim’s and Amal Kassir’s TED talks spotlight the power of words and how their misuse can radicalise. Jim DeFede’s The Day the World Came to Town shows the best of what we can do in dark times. These and similar works influence how we debate, for wiser, more competent, compassionate discussion.


As a global community, we need peaceful, trustworthy ways to respond to radicalization. Though solutions are thorny, debates on terror should avoid us vs. them narratives. It dehumanizes the subjects, clouding objective views on the causes of terrorism and on how to prevent it.



Cyrus Jones is from Mauritius and briefs from the UK. He is a candidate for an MPhil in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.

Connect with him via LinkedIn.


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