How do we decide what we consider ‘terrorism’?

Opinion: There should not be a disentangling of the motives of violent attacks almost the instant they’ve happened

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A memorial for the victims of the shooting at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, including 25 white chairs painted with a cross and and rose, is displayed in the Texas church. A man opened fire inside the church yet his attack has not been labelled terrorism. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Houssem Ben Lazreg, PhD Candidate/ Teaching Assistant of French/ Freelance Translator/Interpreter, University of Alberta

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Earlier this month, a group of innocent people were praying in a small church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., when a gunman carrying a semiautomatic rifle opened fire and killed 25 parishioners.

Officials investigating the shooting asserted that they would not treat the attack as a terrorist act.

Just a few days earlier, a man in a rented truck drove down a busy bicycle path in New York City, killing eight people and injuring almost a dozen more. Officials, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, immediately labelled the attack “an act of terror, and a particularly cowardly act of terror.”

In October, another gunman named opened fire at a music festival in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 and injuring as many as 527 people. Although this attack went down as the deadliest mass shooting in American history, officials refrained from calling it a terrorist act.

The controversy around how acts of deadly violence are labelled has revived the old, ferocious debate about the various definitions of an act of terror. Should terrorism always be politically motivated? Is the label “terrorist” only and exclusively assigned to attacks perpetrated by Muslim individuals? Can we consider the Texas and Las Vegas shootings as apolitical forms of terrorism?

As a PhD candidate at the department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta, a big part of my research deals with terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida.

What is terrorism?

For several years, various scholars and policymakers have tried to define terrorism. The renowned professor Yonah Alexander defines it as “the use of violence against random civilian targets in order to intimidate or to create generalized pervasive fear for the purpose of achieving political goals.”

In the United States, terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and 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.” Unlike these two definitions highlighting political motivation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency‘s definition includes the use of illegal force or violence “for purposes of intimidation, coercion or ransom,” but does not require it to be politically motivated.

The failure to craft an agreed-upon definition of terrorism, accompanied by a growing politicization of the concept by American politicians and media outlets, has left a vacuum for different interpretations. Most disturbingly, it’s stigmatized a specific religious group — Muslims.

What makes a Muslim a terrorist by default?

Let’s go back to June 12, 2016, when Omar Mateen, an American with Afghan origins, killed 49 people and wounded 58 others in an armed attack inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

Media outlets rushed to speculate that Mateen had perpetrated this act of terror because he’d pledged allegiance to ISIS. But I contend Mateen invoked the name of ISIS in order to add notoriety and publicity to what was then the worst mass shooting by a single shooter in American history. Mateen, after all, had been interviewed by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 but was not found to be a threat.

Norman Casiano, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting, writes a note on a banner during a vigil in Orlando, Fla., in October 2017 to show solidarity with the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Casiano was hiding in a bathroom stall with dozens of others when the Orlando gunman shot him twice through the stall door. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Regardless of the allegiances the shooter might have pledged, all evidence suggests it was a queer-phobic attack.

The irony is that in the American subconscious, any violent attack perpetrated by a Muslim or by someone of Middle Eastern descent is immediately and automatically deemed as an act of terror no matter what their motivations. In other words, Muslims tend to be viewed as inherently political terrorists even if they’re mentally unstable or have serious personal or family issues.

Mateen’s father told NBC News that his son was “enraged” after seeing two men kissing in front of his family. Besides that, Sitora Yusifiy, who was briefly married to Mateen, stated that “Omar was not a stable person.”

When white people commit acts of domestic terror, they’re often labelled deranged, evil and mentally ill, just as U.S. President Donald Trump described the perpetrator in Texas.

Why aren’t mass shooters considered terrorists?

Apparently, it’s essential an act of violence has political motivations in order to be considered terrorism.

But if we move from a purpose-based to an effect-based approach, the crimes committed by white men in Texas and Las Vegas are instances of apolitical terrorism: Their deeds mimicked the spectacle of a terrorist attack without the political demand. They are acts of terror because they were intended to terrorize and punish a population of innocent people by causing the biggest number of indiscriminate causalities as possible.

Even after their heinous acts, Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, and Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas killer, are afforded the privilege of being white.

They are not placed in a category of white men who commit more mass shootings than any other racial or ethnic group. News reports will not place them in the category of terrorists, even though in the case of Paddock, Nevada state law defines the Las Vegas mass shooting as an act of terrorism

According to the Trump administration, Muslims need more vetting and travel bans need to be implemented to protect the American people, but a white person can commit cold-blooded, racially motivated murder, as Dylann Roof did in South Carolina, and simply be described as mentally unstable and deranged.

This is the most common and widespread explanation every time white men gun down countless innocent people, even when medical evidence backing up a mental illness diagnosis is lacking. It’s high time Trump comes up with a system that vets white people — particularly when it comes to the ease with which they can obtain guns — in order to address the plague of terrorism by white Americans.

I sometimes wonder if white people themselves are aware of how often the crimes committed by their racial group are excused or minimized under the guise of anxiety, mental illness, drug addiction, depression and BS fragility sensitivity syndrome (yes, I made up that last one).

Am I saying that excuses and pretexts should be provided when Muslims, Black or brown people commit terrible crimes? Absolutely not.

The ConversationMy point is that all attacks of this nature — regardless of the race, colour, and ethnicity of the perpetrator — are acts of terror. There should not be a disentangling of the motives of the attacks almost the instant they’ve happened. The gravity of the butcheries committed in mass shootings are so horrific, it is terrorism, pure and simple. Time to label it as such.

This piece was originally published at logo-6ed98023442246a1b432bd646eec8daf94dba5361825aeacd7d7ca488c268e96

The Conversation


How do we decide what we consider ‘terrorism’?

  1. More propaganda.

    Why is it worse to die from someone trying to effect change, than from a random senseless act?

    Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by us while leading the ANC’s struggle against apartheid. He since won the nobel peace prize for the same.

    If we actually heard what motivated all these mass killers we would probably recognize that something about society bothered them enough, to choose any act that would guarantee worldwide media attention and potentially shed light on their issues.

    But our propaganda censors their manifestos because we can’t be allowed to question our leadership and direction.

    You have been conditioned to hear “terrorist” and think no further. You sign a blank cheque. Perfect.

    If the important information is censored from us, we don’t have a free democracy. We only have fascist alternatives to choose from.

  2. It should go without saying that the motive for any attack will be a matter of discussion almost the instant that it happens, but it is important that the conclusion be arrived at following a sensible period of intelligent thought.

    Some may pause to understand the study of ISIS and Al-Qaida in a department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, but I know someone who’s PhD. research consisted of seemingly endless hours watching western cowboy movies. Therefore, that subject could become a subject at another time.

    From the formal examples given defining ‘terrorism’, I would suggest a composite description; “The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, for any reason.” In other words, political or social objectives may be a cause if the ‘terrorist’ is considered sane at the time of the act but, nevertheless, being insane cannot remove the term.

    The assumption that a definition stigmatized a specific group, i.e., Muslims, is incorrect. The formal definitions do not mention Muslims. Nevertheless, you would not be wrong to assume that some people equate Muslims specifically with terrorism and, thus, the word Islamophobia is introduced.

    It seems silly to say that “even after their heinous acts, Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, and Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas killer, are afforded the privilege of being white.” Is their death being considered as martyrdom? Without a doubt, they were both insane.

    This must raise the question of sanity. If a Muslim misinterprets the words of the Qu’ran and becomes a Fundamental Islamist believing that all infidels must be banished from the Earth, and all Muslim women should wear a burqa, does that mean such a person is insane? Actually, no. That person has been religiously radicalized by an ideology perpetrated, usually, by an equally radicalized imam. Being intensely religious does not remove one’s sanity, but there may be some insanity in the misinterpreted ideology. After all, we should not imagine that the prophet Muhammad was insane, should we?

    Finally, it would be useful if peaceful followers of any religion did not religiously misunderstand fundamental teaching and, thus, quietly accept the inevitable terrorism.

  3. Labeling any attack as an act of terrorism has major legal and law enforcement implications. It grants extremely expansive investigative police powers that are both excessive and unnecessary in some of these cases. However, without a clear political motive to each attack, with intent to influence government decisions, it does not actually qualify under the Patriot Act in the US, no matter how much we think it feels right or fair to label the attack “terrorism”. By those legal definitions, even with how broad and vague they are, it still doesn’t fit.

    There’s these competing viewpoints the piece discusses, but they seem to be pretty simple. There’s this colloquial view in which only the size of the attack matters, and the perceived innocence of the victims plays a major part. Law enforcement doens’t use this, but some officials and civil servants do.

    Then there’s the legal definition that grants expansive investigative police powers including, at times, the ability to detain without cause, greater discretion regarding civil asset forfeiture, etc.

    I’m not comfortable with the idea of granting police the expansive powers granted under anti-terrorist legislation unless an attack actually meets those qualities. This did not, and we should be vigilant about trading away more privacy and protection rights under law just because emotions are high and we want to use a catchy, expressive label to ‘stick it to the bad guy’.

    What media outlets, officials, and the public call terrorism doesn’t matter. What law enforcement treats as terrorism does, because it actually means something – more police powers.