Last week two men, Desmond Turner and James Stewart, entered a house in an impoverished and overrun neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis and left having murdered seven members of a blended family. This neighborhood is mere minutes from where I grew up, went to school, and delivered newspapers all through college. I drive through this neighborhood at least once a week and have traversed it twice today. The crime itself has been readily categorized as the worst murder case to befall Indianapolis in decades. The horrific details made their way to national news. In fact, I was in Washington, D.C. when the events unfolded and had to watch a hometown tragedy from a detached position.
Through what appears to be police work par excellence, both suspects were apprehended and in custody in 48 hours. The city was able to breath a sigh of relief, but cold comfort really with seven funerals, trials, and numerous questions that may or may not go unanswered are still on the horizon.
On Tuesday June 6, Marion county prosecutor Carl Brizzi held a press conference to announce his decision to definitely seek a death penalty for Turner and leave the option open for Stewart. Brizzi has multiple witnesses, eye- witnesses and even further accomplices to help him build his case against what is turning out to be two men with little or no regard for human life. Details of the investigation were released in a probable cause affidavit that will chill any reader with its precise details while at the same time reassure citizens that Brizzi’s case looks rock solid against the two men. Yet, Brizzi turned a phrase in his press conference that immediately got my ire. He noted that these crimes were, “a cowardly act. An act of terrorism.”
Hold the phone. Terrorism?
Now I can only see two logical reasons as to why Brizzi would have chosen these words to describe what is most certainly a cowardly act of the most heinous degree: a) he’s merely reflecting the liquid semantics of our cherished English language or b) he purposefully misused it for shock value.
In the Reconstruction South, southern sympathizers of the imposed northern forces were branded scallywags, a word that is now synonymous with any scoundrel, not just turncoats in Alabama. A troubled, oddly-built man used to walk up and down Arlington Ave. in Indianapolis – always clad in shorts – tearing down any garage sale or lost puppy sign posted on telephone poles. He was obviously unstable and quite an imposing presence. My family called him simply, “The Nazi.” Though he did wear jackboots, we never saw him profess any fascist ideals nor swear allegiance to the fatherland, nor ever claim to have been to Argentina. Throughout my youth, any individual purposefully set against the status quo or progress was quickly branded a “communist,” no matter what color his socks were.
Has terrorist mad the leap? Is it now a catchall for anyone we’d rather not have counted in our number? I hope not. One need look no further than Canada where officials unearthed a plot by 17 individuals to detonate a bomb larger than the one Timothy McVeigh set off in Oklahoma City and behead their prime minister in order to free all Muslim prisoners amongst other objectives. This happened hours ago. I think this example alone should preclude anyone from trying to forcibly evolve the nomenclature.
And it may seem academic, or bookish, or even down right snooty, but terrorism as it was used by Carl Brizzi does not mean what he intended it to mean. Terrorism is not defined by action as much as it is defined by intent. Those conspirators in Canada were not interested in killing people as an end, but as a means to coerce others into changing their beliefs, actions, or intent. Terrorism has at its root the desire to use force – often deadly force – as a means to impose the terrorist’s will. As counter-intuitive as terrorism is, it is what it is. I’m reminded of what David Letterman noted on September 17, 2001. “If you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamned sense?”
Did Brizzi think he was shoring up his case against these two? I don’t think he needs to. According to the probable cause affidavit, Desmond Turner made public his intention to “kill everyone in the house” in order to rob them. Turner and Stewart killed people as do terrorists, but Turner had no agenda beyond sick greed. Turner is not the leader of a syndicate with revolution on their flag. Desmond Turner is a murderer. Thankfully, he is also behind bars and most likely will be for the rest of his life. We don’t have to reinvent our language because try as you might, what Turner and Stewart did still remains beyond words.
I very much doubt that Carl Brizzi was a victim of a language changing at the speed of Google. I also doubt that if Brizzi thinks something at the water cooler is hilarious he flashes up a quick LOL. I’d like to think Brizzi made a very poor choice of words for shock value, but he’s actually done this before. Why shock us? What is more shocking than three children face down on a bed murdered with an assault rifle? What is more shocking than a man who weeks earlier had confided in a friend that he was interested in turning his life around only to end up going on a murderous wild goose chase for a rumored safe full of money? Did anyone really need to have the severity and hopelessness of this murder driven home by calling some recidivist low-life a terrorist?
Yet still Brizzi branded Turner and Stewart terrorists, as he did with Terrance Anderson, a man who murdered two men in June 2005. (In fairness, Brizzi called Anderson an “urban terrorist.”) This misplaced, willy-nilly name calling for mere shock value flies in the face of Brizzi’s personal stance on the war on terror outlined on his website. Nowhere in his plan to fight terrorism does Brizzi address street level criminals and old-fashioned sons of Cain. The closest he comes is promising to deal swiftly with those who have false identification or make fake terrorist threats. Curious. Do us all a favor, Mr. Brizzi. Call these men what they are, murderers. Update your website while you’re at it.
I’m willing to let English evolve further, but we’re still not ready to label any rapscallion a terrorist yet. As of today, that word is still more concrete than clay. It’ll happen though, I’m sure. If you don’t believe me just remember that in 1945 Nazis were on trial for crimes against humanity. By 1995, nazis wouldn’t serve you soup if they damn well pleased.
What a world.