Is a particular act an act of terrorism? Is a particular person a terrorist?
People want the label applied to acts and people that are readily and resoundingly vilified. It hardly matters if the person is an actual official terrorist. If they killed someone and you are really really mad at them you want them to be a terrorist. Or, if they are just scary. Like the elderly black homeless man in this story, labeled by the Iowa Farmers as a terrorist because it was impossible for him to squeeze his wheelchair through a door gracefully.
We yell at each other about whether or not a person will be labeled as a terrorist, and it is often said that if a mass killer is found out to be brown, he’ll be labeled as one, but if he is found out to be white, his actions will be attributed to mental illness. And so on.
People also want the label to be applied instantly, just as the news of some horrid event is coming out. No matter what. Call the terrorist a terrorist NOW or you, too, are a TERRORIST.
Here’s the thing. What a terrorist is, or what terrorism is, has an official definition. There are probably going to be unclear cases, but the term terrorism has a meaning and it is important to get this right even if getting it right somehow goes against the sensibilities of the Extremely Annoyed. Also, since there is a real definition and details matter, it is absurd to demand that the label be used instantly. It takes time. And, we can wait. There is no gain in instant labeling of a terrorist. Police and investigators would do the same things in either case in the initial stages of an event.
The FBI gives these two definitions of terrorism:
International terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).
–for example, the December 2, 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, CA, that killed 14 people and wounded 22 which involved a married couple who radicalized for some time prior to the attack and were inspired by multiple extremist ideologies and foreign terrorist organizations.
Domestic terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.
–for example, the June 8, 2014 Las Vegas shooting, during which two police officers inside a restaurant were killed in an ambush-style attack, which was committed by a married couple who held anti-government views and who intended to use the shooting to start a revolution.
These definitions are OK but they mask an important part of the meaning of terrorism. Motive and intent. Terrorists want to cause the population they attack to change what they do or be diminished in some key thing like resolve, strength, or happiness, as the result of their terroristic threat. Imagine the rise of a terrorist group, calling itself The Big Slap. A member of The Big Slap shows up in New York City and kills a bunch of people. They they release a statement. “The Big Slap demands that America free all the prisoners at Gitmo. However, we have no intention of launching another attack on American Soil. We regard our previous attack to be sufficient.” The Big Slap would, I suppose, be one of those edge cases. Terroristic in a way, but not really, because there is no further threat. We can be annoyed at them, mad at them, but not fearful of them.
So is a mass murderer a terrorist, one with no political or social intent, one not supporting a cause or representing an organization labeled as terrorist? Technically, no, they are a criminal, but the act of mass murder is not automatically a terroristic act.
Except when it is. With the increasing frequency of mass murders (and they are increasing) I suppose yet another mass murder reminds people that anywhere, any time, anyone could be a victim of a mass murder. That’s terrifying, in a way. Mass murderers that are mainly out to make an impression, under current circumstances, are certainly acting like terrorists in this respect.
But the FBI won’t classify them as terrorists because it makes no sense to them to do so, and does not help them in their efforts.
One thing to keep in mind is this: It is simply not the case that we have to label an act as a terrorist act, or a person as a terrorist, to acknowledge that a crime of great significance has occurred, or that a person is a real jerk. The terrorist label puts certain laws or sentencing guidelines into place. It changes the statistics a bit. It is not like the failure to use the terrorist label has a significant cost, pragmatically.
It is not like there is a lack of terrorist acts. According to the FBI, recently, a Brooklyn resident was charged with providing support to ISIS and extradited. A Libyan was charged with a Bengazi related attack. A different Brooklyn man was sentenced to prison for conspiring to support terrorists. An American was sentenced to 20 years in prison for joining ISIS. Fifteen people were charged in a major money laundering scheme linked to terrorism. A Honduran was charged with attempting to blow something up in a Miami mall. A Man in Chicago was sentence for attempting to join a Syrian terrorist group. A man in Massachusetts was convicted of supporting ISIS and conspiring to murder Americans. Another individual was sentenced to something related to human trafficking and terrorism. Someone was sentenced in relation to last year’s bombing in New York. There was an obstruction of justice case, a firearm charge, another ISIS related conspiracy indictment related to last year’s New York City bombings.
All within the last month.
During the same period of time, roughly, there were mass shootings in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Edgewood, Maryland, Thornton, Colorado, and of course, Sutherland Springs, Texas. Most of those will not be labeled terrorist acts, but maybe one or two will be. Mass shootings and acts of terrorism are parallel, similar, overlapping, and sometimes, coeval things.
The picture at the top of the post is a selection of American based terrorists, according to legal authorities. Can you name them all?