In light of the most recent, and lamentable, tragedy in which people were senselessly murdered by a young man with affiliations to radical Islam; once again people are calling out each other for their selective use of the word “terrorist”. Which is understandable given how quickly the event is being politicized. If the left is quick to stack the bodies of mass shooting victims to prop up gun control legislation, then the right is just as fast at crafting immigration legislation with the blood of the victims of terrorism.
But, aside from partisan mutual accusations of hypocrisy and selective outrage, terrorism has real meaning. And so do other crimes.
There is a real reason for why members of law enforcement – you know, the people who are actually doing something to stop these horrible events from happening – characterize some mass murders as terrorism, and not others.
Terrorism: is a tactic. It’s not about the number of victims; there seems to be a misapprehension that if a lot of people are deliberately killed, it must be called a terrorist attack. “How can you not say it’s terrorism when so many people have been murdered?” is the complaint.
But acts of terrorism can have no casualties. Not even injured. Terrorism is a tactic where someone – a terrorist – tries to effect political change by instilling fear in the population. So burning a bunch of trucks – where no one was even injured – still counts as an act of terrorism, because the objective was to cause political change by threatening damage (property damage, but damage nonetheless). To make people afraid of doing certain things, or to do certain things out of fear.
Other examples of terrorism include one of the FBI’s most wanted domestic terrorists, who hasn’t killed or injured anyone. He burned buildings to try to prevent animal testing.
Terrorism is not an euphemism for “really awful crime”, since many – in fact, the majority – of terrorist acts don’t have any fatalities, and very frequently no injured. However, they instill or intend to instill fear in the population with the objective of influencing policy.
Consequently, understanding the motive is necessary to determine whether a crime is terroristic in nature or not. Most often, terrorists want their cause to be known, and will advertise it quite heavily – frequently, terrorist activity is meant to call attention to a cause. They leave pamphlets, publish manifestos, call the media, etc. Therefore, a terrorist attack is usually quite quickly identified as such.
We shouldn’t confuse the tactic with the method. A terrorist attack is a tactic; a “lone wolf” – that is, a person acting on their own without accomplices and support from an organization – is a way of identifying the relationship that the perpetrator has with other potential attackers. A terrorist can be a “lone wolf” or can be part of a terrorist organization.
But a “lone wolf” can often not be a terrorist. A man with suicidal tendencies who is dealing with frustration from being rejected by women might go on a killing spree as a “lone wolf” – but since his motivation is not to change policy by instilling fear – though his actions can be quite terrifying – he’s not a terrorist.
This is what leads a lot of people to be confused when sometimes an attacker is called a lone wolf, another a terrorist, and sometimes an attacker is called both.
There is another category which is where an assailant commits an act of terror along with another more egregious crime; Dylann Roof – who murdered 9 people in a church in Charlestown with the objective of starting a race war, because he hated black people – fits the definition of terrorist. He was trying to affect policy by instilling fear – start a race war – and he committed damage. He fits the definition of terrorist.
But he’s also a white supremacist and committed a hate crime; he targeted people based on their skin color. This is a much more concerning crime than terrorism – after all, terrorism is a tactic; but his driving motivation was his hatred of black people – so he’s not considered a terrorist because focusing on the fact that he’s a white supremacist mass murderer is more important. In the same way that a thief who kills someone in a botched robbery is called a killer, and not a thief.
Distinguishing between what kind of crime was committed is important, because that affects policy responses to it; how we as a society deal with a lone wolf is different than how we deal with someone who is part of an organization. And how we deal with terrorism is different than how with deal with racial supremacy, and someone “snapping” due to some internal mental problem.
Calling certain tragedies terrorism and others not is relevant to how we discuss a response to them; and while calling out bias in application is not by itself wrong, if it is the major focus of you interest in the event… well, maybe you need different priorities.