On Terrorism

Not every crime is terrorism, but terrorism is always a crime.

What is terrorism? That is the question, isn’t it? There is no single definition of terrorism. At its root is terror. Merriam-Webster defines terror as “a state of deep fear.” But terrorism isn’t merely the act of terrorizing. Terrorism, as an act, has a purpose. The same Merriam-Webster calls terrorism “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Many governing bodies and organizations have slightly different definitions of terrorism. However, it is usually some form of violence or threat of violence for gain, usually political, or to promote an ideology. The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Whereas the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 uses this definition: “acts of persons acting on behalf of, or in connection with, any organisation which carries out activities directed. towards the overthrowing or influencing, by force or violence, of Her Majesty’s  government in the United Kingdom or any other government de jure or de facto.” The UN, being comprised of 193 nations, each with their own ideas of terrorism, does not have a definition. Alex P. Schmid, as part of his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, writes that terrorists use violence or the threat of violence, usually against civilians for predominantly political reasons.

This is not a debate over the definition of terrorism, but rather a suggestion that motive matters, especially in terrorism. In the past few years, the word “terrorism” has been thrown around more and more, in all manner of crimes. In some cases, it has even been used to express unfair treatment. Madonna once called a leak of her music “a form of terrorism.” (She terrorized by her music being leaked?) Using the word to describe any form of grievance or crime cheapens the word. There are those of a particular lean that feel the label is only being applied to followers of a certain religion, and should be applied more liberally to crimes committed by others. Let’s look at some of the high profile incidents that some people have wanted labeled as terrorism:

-The Colorado theater shooting. This mass shooting was perpetrated by James Holmes, who was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. Holmes committed an act of violence on a civilian population, but did not use it as an act of political coercion nor to promote an ideology. His full motive remains unclear, but what is known, from his own words, is that he wanted to kill people. In one interview, according to the LA Times, Holmes said he killed to increase his self-worth and make him feel better. There was no political or ideological motive.

-The Charleston church shooting. Dylann Roof committed this mass shooting in a historic Black church. He was convicted of murder and civil rights violations (hate crimes), and sentenced to death. Like Holmes, Roof committed an act of violence against civilians. It can be argued that he did so due to his white supremacist beliefs, as spelled out in his manifesto. But was he using the act to promote those beliefs, or to coerce a government or general population? The judge called the act a hate crime and a case of domestic terrorism; Roof himself admitted he wanted to start a race war. This could lead some question the use of “terrorism,” but there is evidence to apply both terms.

-The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting. Robert Dear began a mass shooting that ended after a five hour standoff with police. He said he did it for the babies, and that they would thank him. He was found to be delusional and incompetent to stand trial. Dear acted out on his religious beliefs that abortion is a sin, and sought to punish the sinners more than to promote his ideology. Still, he was trying to stop the practice of abortions through violence, making this crime is similar to other past domestic terror attacks targeting abortion clinics.

Terrorism can also be psychological. The threat of violence for gain can be just as effective. Is the current rash of bomb threats to Jewish community centers a form of terrorism? Possibly. The threat of violence on a civilian population certainly can fall into the category of terrorism. While civilians are not the policy makers, they can influence those who do make the policies in order to stop the violence of threats. Threatening civilians as a way to coerce, or to further an ideology, is not unheard of. The Islamic State uses violence and the threat of violence against civilian populations as part of their campaign to establish their caliphate. The violence and threats are to keep the people in line, as well as promoting their ideology. The bomb threats against the Jewish centers do not appear to fall into the category of terrorism for one major reason: the callers have so far not demanded anything from the victims of the threats. The general implication of the threats is that Jews will be slaughtered. Anti-Semitism rather than terrorism. But in threatening violence against the Jewish Centers, the caller(s) are creating fear and chaos. Is that the political motive behind this possible campaign of fear?

Those are but a few examples. For brevity, many others that can be discussed have been left off.

Why does motive matter? Labeling an act of violence as terrorism during an attack, or shortly thereafter, serves no purpose.  In the long term, it can help in how authorities respond to the act. From a criminal justice point of view, the policing approach to terrorism is different than that of conventional crime, especially in deterrence and prevention methods. Many criminal acts are perpetrated by individuals, whereas terrorism – even “lone wolf” terrorism – is often the act of a network. An act of terrorism could lead to additional acts of violence; knowing motive can help authorities in their prevention. The political motivation of terrorism changes the nature of the threat. According to Erin Miller, writing about motive for the START Consortium, “conventional violence is merely a matter of course; terrorism is a matter of national security.” That stresses the importance of terrorism vs. conventional crime. Terrorism is a criminal act, but not a senseless act. It is politically motivated, but the response should not be.