When President George W. Bush declared a war on terror after 9/11, some commentators correctly worried about what that really meant. You can declare a war on a nation, but how can you declare a war on a strategy, however ugly? How do you actually win?

Bush knew what he was doing, of course. Terrorists can attack anywhere, and can come from anywhere. Terrorism is by definition targeted at civilians, not the military. Terrorists represent a political or religious movement that is easy to portray as antithetical to everything American.

So, they have told us: America, be afraid, always be afraid. And let us attack anywhere militarily in response. True, terrorism may have no specific geography, so we go where we want to.

Fifteen years after 9/11, the word terror is itself a weapon that has expanded in meaning. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, strafing, and lethal drones; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to defeat political incumbents who have allegedly been weak on terrorists.

Terrorism has been applied to almost every horrid shooting and bombing incident the world has seen in the last few years. It was almost among the first words out of President Hollande’s mouth after the Nice tragedy. It is almost always among the first words out of the mouth of Donald Trump, no matter whether it’s the shootings in Orlando or the murders in Nice. It was applied to the axe wielder in Germany. It was also applied to the lone gunman in Munich.

The implication of terror is always that there is an enemy organization behind it all. And these days, that enemy is usually thought to be Muslim.

Even more disturbing, terrorism is constantly in the headlines of responsible newspapers. And always, it seems, makes it to the bold superscripts of CNN. But not only in the United States. The Guardian shouted last Saturday in a headline, “In wake of Munich terror, Germans look to Merkel for reassurance.”

No evidence is needed to show a perpetrator had a tie with an organized group of violent rebels to label him or her a terrorist. It is simply assumed to be so, especially if that person is the son or daughter of parents from Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, Iran, and on.

It’s time to understand that the word terror is itself a weapon to instill fear, and conjure up prejudice and anti-immigrant attitudes.

Many politicians are calling one event after another terrorism. But of course, it turns out the Munich shooter was a young man with no political interests. The ties of the Nice truck driver and the Orlando shooter to jihadists or Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) are still tenuous. ISIS wasn’t pulling any trigger that anyone knows of.

America has its fear mongers. But Britain and Europe have their share, as well. “If, as seems very likely, this is another terrorist incident,” said Britain’s new foreign minister and former London Mayor Boris Johnson, after the Munich incident, “I think it proves once again that we have a global phenomenon and a global sickness that we have to tackle both at the source—in the areas where the cancer is being incubated in the Middle East—and also of course around the world.”

There are exceptions. When a young white man killed nine African-Americans in a church in South Carolina last year, terrorism was not cited. This is, of course, the especially ugly part. It is terrorism when perpetrators are dark-skinned, immigrants, or Muslim. If they are disturbed people who are white or even proclaiming right-wing racism, it is apparently not terrorism.

It’s time to understand that the word terror is itself a weapon to instill fear, and conjure up prejudice and anti-immigrant attitudes.

President Obama has restrained himself from shouting it out every time there is a new, ghastly incident. But the media and politicians across party lines should be condemning the deliberately vicious use of the word. Boris Johnson is being widely rebuked in Britain for his inflammatory overstatements. But the press lets many American politicians go blithely on.

The media should start by censoring themselves. There will be no stopping these incidents until we understand their true cause. Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar calls such attacks “mimetic violence,”—or a “model that fragile people can imitate.” The root cause is often and even usually mental instability exacerbated by poor economic conditions and social alienation. These latter two issues are what should command our attention.