Following the horrific murders of three Muslim North Carolina residents in mid-February, the Palestinian National Authority has condemned the attack as “terrorism” and requested that U.S. law enforcement allow its own investigators to participate in the case. The PA is not the only party labeling the murders as terror attacks and a hate crime. Multiple sources have called for the crime to be labeled as such, including Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan, who called out President Obama for his silence. (He has since released a statement calling the murders “brutal and outrageous.”)

The FBI is now involved, and so far the preliminary investigation has concluded that the shootings were carried out as a result of a dispute over a parking space. That will not be debated here, but exemplifies the power of words and labels, and how, in this age of social media, hashtags, and a 24-hour media that bombards us with its own spin on any given story, those simple words can literally mean the difference between life and death.

According to the U.S. State Department’s website, a foreign government is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism under the following circumstances:

“Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws: section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act.”

As of today, according to the site, four countries are currently designated at state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Given the thawed relations with Cuba, that designation may change, and while there is a lot more to it than just simply deleting a name from a list, it does adequately portray the weight that the words on that simple list carry.

In March of 1982, when the State Department made the decision to place Cuba on the list, the repercussions for the Caribbean nation included sanctions comprised of a ban on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over exports of dual-use items, and miscellaneous financial restrictions. The sanctions did not cause Cuba to implode, but it did cause some hardships.

Governments are not the only organizations playing the word game. Recently, the Ukrainian-American Bar Association posted an open letter demanding that the United States designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, based on its actions pertaining to the ongoing war in the Ukraine. The letter specifically cites the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, and says that it is “clear that these alleged “separatists” are supported, controlled, guided, trained, and armed with extremely deadly weapons by the Russian government. One of these Russian supplied weapons—a BUK S11 SAM missile launcher—brought down Malaysian flight 17.”

The United States has, to this point, been largely inactive on events in the Ukraine and against Russia. Speeches have been made, meetings held, and words exchanged, but nothing of substance has taken place that would make Russia pause or halt its actions. The consequences of this inaction, justified or not, is evident in the continued slaughter and emboldened moves by Russia in the region.

A longer but even more controversial official “list” is the terrorist designation list. Again, words on a piece of paper, but the consequences of being placed on that list can mean loss of financial resources, freedom, and can literally be the difference between life and death. The State Department bases its designation on the following definition:

“Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) are foreign organizations that are designated by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), as amended.”

The list of State Department designated terror organizations is long. Included is the list of…well…delisted organizations no longer deemed a threat by State.
Rumor has it that many nations, mostly in the Middle East, are pushing to have the United States designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Whether or not there is some sort of vehicle for doing this, I do not know. I will not debate the validity of their efforts (suffice to say I wholeheartedly disagree with them), but the point is, again, the power of deliberate use of words.

Yes, the United States has been called a nation of terrorists by its enemies before. But when countries that we have publicly called “friend” and who we have provided assistance to are suspected of labeling us as state sponsors of terrorism, it is a game changer. Intelligence that was once shared must now be held back. Arms that were freely shipped sit in warehouses or on runways, forbidden from being passed on. We have never completely trusted most of these nations, but now the stakes are not just part of a gentlemen’s game.

The ongoing war against ISIS has forced some nations and their leaders to take a hard look at priorities, and the word “coalition” and “allies” have made for some strange bedfellows. The week of 16 February, 2014, brought the release of a video purporting to show ISIS terrorists beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. Egypt, who to this point has largely been untouched by ISIS, immediately launched air attacks on the terrorist positions. President Obama is being pushed (and I agree) to officially label the group as terrorists and not just extremists (if I am not mistaken, he finally did call them terrorists last week, but has yet to formally designate them as such) and to get the U.S. into the fight.

The president has responded by asking Congress for authorization for the use of military force against ISIS. In this request, he used words like “limited,” but was vague in regards to where military forces could operate against ISIS. The debate has already started, with political hawks criticizing what they view as “restrictive language,” while those against intervention believe that the wording is not limiting enough.

While it may seem like just one small word in the grand scheme of things, the president has already experienced great controversy stemming from those things he has and has not said. The continued onslaught by ISIS across the Middle East and North Africa, and its influence on so-called “lone-wolf” actors may force his hand. We are already behind the curve in dealing with them. Ironically, as I am writing this, Carl Higbie, former U.S. Navy SEAL and the author of “Battle on the Home Front,” has made the following comment on NewsMax TV: “You cannot defeat an enemy you refuse to identify.”

The power of the word, indeed.

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