On "Militants" and "Mayhem": Ten Words in the News That You Need to Know

September 25, 2013
This week, we read about the Fed postponing its plan to taper bond-buying, Somali militants staging a hostage siege in an upscale Kenyan mall, House Republicans threatening to shut down the U.S. government, and President Obama articulating a revised diplomatic policy in the Middle East.

To fully understand these unfolding news stories, learn ten key words taken from Washington Post and New York Times coverage.
Wall Street grabbed hold of taper to describe the Fed's proposed stepping down from its quantitative easement bond-buying program, and even after the Fed postponed that effort, there's no sign of a taper for the term. Read about Septaper and Octaper here.
While the Fed postponed its retreat, interest rates remained higher than before it started talking about tapering, in the United States, Europe and emerging markets.
-- " In Surprise, Fed Decides to Maintain Pace of Stimulus," The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2013
If militant makes you think of the military, good. It refers to someone who fights, or engages in "military" action to get what they want. Thus, calling the terrorists who attacked civilians in a mall militants is appropriate. It suggests that they are taking their campaign to a military level. But do note: As an adjective, militant can simply stand in for "hard core," as in your militant opposition to eating sugar.
Claiming to have “ashamed and defeated our attackers,” President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on Tuesday declared victory over the Islamist militants who stormed into a crowded Nairobi shopping mall and killed dozens of civilians.
-- " Kenya’s President Says Mall Attackers Are ‘Defeated’," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013
Asymmetric describes a lack of symmetry, equality, or equivalence. In a military context, it refers to warfare where the forces fighting are significantly different from each other either in terms of power or strategy, an important concept to get under your belt if you plan to read or talk about terrorism.
“What we’re witnessing is Al Shabab taking its asymmetric attacks into Kenya at the same time it’s intensifying its pattern of attacks in Somalia,” said one senior American official.
-- " Kenya Mall Carnage Shows Shabab Resilience," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013
Porous, which means filled with holes, is a word you might recognize from chemistry and geology, where it refers to rocks, soil, or other materials that might appear solid, but in fact allow liquid or gas to pass through. When a country's borders are said to be porous, that doesn't suggest they're completely unguarded; simply that there are many holes, or ways, to get across.
The attack was rehearsed and the team dispatched, slipping undetected through Kenya’s porous borders, often patrolled by underpaid — and deeply corrupt — border guards.
--" Before Kenya Attack, Rehearsals and Planting of Machine Guns," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013
Although mayhem is often used as an exaggerated way to refer to chaos and noise (say, describing a toddler birthday party), its original meaning is "a disturbance of a violent nature." With its cousin maim, mayhem evolved from the Old French mahaigne, which was a legal term for an "injury, wrong, harm, damage." So when you think of mayhem think of the kind of violent chaos you'd see on the field of battle, not just boisterous name calling and spit balls.
Western security officials fear that several fighters slipped out of the mall during the mayhem of the attack, dropping their guns and disguising themselves as civilians, an account echoed by some witnesses.
-- " Before Kenya Attack, Rehearsals and Planting of Machine Guns," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013
A filibuster is a legislative technique through which a legislator delays a vote on a bill by speaking continuously. Perhaps its most famous example is fictional: Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
By 5 a.m. Wednesday, the length of Cruz’s marathon discourse had surpassed...a roughly 14-hour filibuster delivered by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in 1964.
-- " Sen. Cruz extends attack on Obamacare into Wednesday morning," The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2013
Immolation suggests martyrdom, particularly the burning alive of Christians in the early days of the church. Self-immolation means sacrificing your life -- or in this case, your political fortunes -- in order to stand up for what you believe.
"We’re in the minority, we have to find a way of standing up for our principles without immolating ourselves in front of everybody, in a way when we don’t have the votes to do it.”
-- " Sen. Cruz speaks at length against Obamacare," The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2013
Followers of Obama news will have heard this word often in the past few weeks, after he used it in a television address explaining the U.S. reaction to chemical warfare in Syria, saying, "When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death...I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional."
In a wide-ranging speech to the General Assembly...Mr. Obama insisted that the United States still played an “ exceptional” role on the world stage.
-- " Obama Defends U.S. Engagement in the Middle East," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013
To understand the "Asia pivot" announced in 2010 as Obama administration's refocusing on Asia, you'll need to know that pivot means to turn on a fixed point. Find more on Obama's pivot here.
What makes the task all the harder for Mr. Obama is a sense that American power in the region is diminished . . . partly because Mr. Obama’s own declaration of the “ pivot” to Asia has been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as evidence he has given up on the Middle East.
-- " For Obama, an Evolving Doctrine on Foreign Policy," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013
Both irresolute, meaning "undecided or uncertain" and its opposite resolute, meaning "admirably purposeful," describe degrees of resolve, a noun which means "determination." To call a president's foreign policy irresolute is to suggest that he doesn't know what he wants or how to make it happen.
After first threatening, then backing off, a military strike against Syria, and now suddenly confronting a diplomatic opening with Iran, Mr. Obama has employed a foreign policy that has at times seemed improvisational and, in the view of many critics, irresolute.
-- " Obama Defends U.S. Engagement in the Middle East," The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2013

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