Last week, an armed man entered a Manila casino, and began shooting. In the end, at least 36 people were dead, as was the gunman. After the attack, Islamic State claimed the attack (twice!), and even President Trump called the incident an act of terrorism. The police, on the other hand, said it was not terrorism, but an attempted robbery gone horribly wrong. The gunman was said to be a gambling addict.
Why would both a terrorist organization and a politician both label an attack terrorism, when is wasn’t? As I was asked recently, who benefits from labeling something ‘terrorism’?
First, terrorists themselves benefit. Coverage of a successful attack spreads their message, and spreads fear. Coverage of terror attacks is one of the best forms of propaganda. 24 hour news coverage is free, and has a worldwide reach. The news organizations display the terrorists’ messages, pictures of the dead and wounded, and spread fear of more to come. The very act of terrorism is to instill fear through violence or threat of violence for a certain, often political, gain. The more terror attacks there are (real or perceived), the more people will fear the terrorists, and sometimes even giving in to the demands.
Second, the politicians who are looking to curb freedoms benefit. In the Philippines, President Duterte declared martial law after militants stormed Malawi City. Duterte, no stranger to extrajudicial power plays, could have used the Manila incident to justify the need for even more crackdowns in the country. This is something that has been going on in Erdogan’s Turkey for years. In that country, incidents are routinely blamed on the Kurds, and then used as an excuse to limit rights and even jail people. President Trump benefits by drumming up support from his base for his travel ban. In the aftermath of this weekend’s London terror attacks, Prime Minister May suggested regulating the internet to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online.” In short, politicians use the fear of more attacks to push their agendas and gain power.
Third, the news organizations benefit by way of ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a common refrain. Despite the horror of a terror attack, people sit glued to the screen for hours, watching experts and hosts try to make sense of the tragedy. The longer the news channels can keep talking about an incident, the longer people will keep watching.
And finally, a certain class of individuals benefit by being able to push their personal agendas. Over the weekend, a woman asked how the London or Manchester attacks were considered terrorism, but the Sandy Hook shooting was not. She was implying it was due to race/religion, and using that point to attack others. Seemingly lacking the understanding that terrorism is a specific thing, she (and others) have used terror attacks not to have a legitimate conversation about the perpetrators of terrorism, but to attack people for imagined discrimination.
Even if a crime is not actually terrorism, there are people who benefit from labeling it as such. And it often comes down to fear or power, no matter who is doing the labeling.