In the opening line of his Daily Kos editorial Thursday, writer Shaun King asked a question for which he had already decided the answer: “What is terrorism if it is not peaceful people worshipping their God who are shot and killed by a gunman they openly allowed into their church?”
King’s question was provoked by a mass shooting incident at a South Carolina church one day earlier in which nine black parishioners were killed during an evening Bible study. Hours after the incident, police later identified their prime suspect as Dylann S. Roof, a 21-year-old white man.
In recent times, whenever a mass shooting spree takes place in America, the commentary on blogs and social media invariably turns to one question: Why aren’t these crimes considered acts of terrorism while others are?
Usually the questions — which start to bubble up hours after a crime has ended, but also when information remains relatively scarce — draw comparisons between mass killings, some of which are labeled “terrorism” and some of which aren’t. The common theme in those comparisons — as was evident late Wednesday evening and early Thursday morning when the think-pieces began floating on Twitter and elsewhere — is that crimes committed by persons of colors are labeled “terrorist acts” while those committed by white individuals aren’t.
Anyone who watches cable news during these unfolding events has to agree that not all crimes are treated equally. Television commentators can be quick to label heinous crimes, such as the 2009 Fort Hood shooting or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, as acts of terrorism while holding out on applying the label to other events, including the time a man flew his plane into the side of a government building in Texas in 2010 or the 2014 Santa Barbara college shooting or Wednesday evening’s murder spree at a church in Charleston.
In the court of public opinion, any — and likely, all — of those events qualify as an act of terrorism. This belief largely stems from the government’s quick decision to label certain mass-casualty events — the attacks on Sept. 11 and the Boston bombing — as acts of terrorism, which the public has come to believe equate any form of mass killing as an act of terror.
But the single determining factor between what is and isn’t terrorism is motive, as is outlined in the federal government’s definition of what constitutes a terrorist act. Under the law, a person is guilty of a terrorist act if that act is “dangerous to human life” and “appears intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population (or) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
In other words, in order for a crime to be considered an act of terrorism, it must be both dangerous to human life (which qualifies murder, attempted murder and even some forms of assault) and must be motivated by some desire to intimidate or persuade either the people or the government.
When we examine certain events of murder or mass murder a bit closer, it’s clear that in some events, the media and the government get it right when they choose to point to a subject’s mental condition or other motivating factors outside political or religious rhetoric. And it’s also clear that the media and the government sometimes gets it wrong.
The 2009 attack on a Texas military installation: Terrorism
U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan admitted to opening fire on more than a dozen of his colleagues at Fort Hood, saying his motivating factor was to persuade soldiers not to go to Afghanistan and kill those who shared his religious beliefs (Hasan is a practicing Muslim). An investigation into Hasan after the shooting found that he had been in regular communication with a radical Muslim cleric (although these communications were later found to be authorized concerning his work as a military psychologist) and had downloaded and viewed radical Islamist publications. But because the shooting took place on a military installation, and because Hasan was an enlisted soldier, he was tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which does not have a provision for acts of terrorism. Still, because his acts were committed in an attempt to intimidate and coerce those who worked for the government, his actions could be considered those of a terrorist.
The 2012 attack in a movie theater in Colorado: Not terrorism
The day of the shooting at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Salon writer David Sirota challenged those in the press who referred to James Holmes as a “lone wolf” instead of a terrorist. In so many elegant words, his eloquent piece demonstrated what many members of the public believe to be true: that any crime committed upon a mass of innocents is terrorism. Blogger Dean Obeidallah suggested Holmes was a terrorist because he wanted to “make us all fear that in the friendly confides of our neighborhood movie theater, another killer could be lurking in the darkness waiting to open fire” Three years later, there’s no evidence of that, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest his alleged crime was the product of mental illness and instability. In his notebook, Holmes allegedly wrote that he had a strong desire to kill since he was a child, and that his desire was not connected to any particular message. “The message is, there is no message,” he purportedly wrote. He admitted that his “state of mind” was the motivating factor behind his crime, and a handful of doctors appear to agree. It will be up to a jury to decide if Holmes was, and is, mentally cognizant or not, but whether he was or was not a terrorist has seemingly been settled by the evidence.
The 2010 attack on a government building in Texas: Terrorism
When Joseph Stack flew his small plane into the side of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Austin, Texas, five years ago, the local police chief stopped short of calling the act one motivated by terrorism. But a manifesto published on Stack’s website before his death showed otherwise: In it, he challenged the IRS on various issues — most of which were financial problems of his own — and concluded that violence against the government “is the only answer.” It was meant as a rallying cry for anyone who would indulge in reading it. His action is largely believed as one intended to intimidate the government and encourage copycats to follow in his footsteps. Despite this, government officials declined to refer to Stack’s action as a terrorist act when there were clear indications it was one.
The 2012 shooting of students at a Connecticut school: Not terrorism
Adam Lanza, the young man police say was responsible for the shooting deaths of dozens of first- and second-grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, carried out his twisted plan after years of playing violent video games, researching and writing about historical mass shootings and being introduced to firearms by his parents. None of those alone could point to what motivated one of the most-horrific mass killings in recent times — but all of them, coupled with his apparent untreated Asperger’s syndrome (which some have argued did not have anything to do with the killings — but left untreated, others familiar with the syndrome say it could) — help explain what triggered them. But was it terrorism? No, because as one FBI special agent put it, there is no evidence Lanza was trying to intimidate or send a coercive message to anyone.
The 2013 bombing of a sporting event in Massachusetts: Terrorism
Within days of the Boston Marathon bombing, former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote that some — including government officials and the press — had been quick to label the act one of terrorism and the accused perpetrator Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a terrorist. “There is no known evidence, at least not publicly available, about their alleged motives,” Greenwald wrote of Tsarnaev and his co-conspirator brother Tamerlan. And at the time, Greenwald was right. But now more than two years after the marathon bombing, the government has provided ample evidence that points to the Tsarnaev brothers’ increased radicalization before the bombings. A note written by Dzhokhar offers further evidence or radicalization — his desire to “punish” American citizens for the government’s “killing of American civilians.”
The 2013 leak of classified documents detailing clandestine surveillance operations: Not terrorism
There has been some debate as to whether or not the once-secret National Security Agency (NSA) spy programs exposed by Edward Snowden has caused considerable, or any, harm to the gathering of intelligence that could be used to thwart terrorist attacks and keep us safe, and there is some debate as to whether or not the immediate effects of those disclosures posed some danger for covert operatives working in other countries, as was suggested in a recent newspaper article. Some, looking at the government’s definition of a terrorist act, might wonder whether Snowden’s actions could be considered terrorism. Absent any evidence that has already been made public, the answer is no, because Snowden himself has said that his intention was to create public discourse about the programs, not sway anyone into believing they were wrong or right. There’s no indication Snowden’s intent was to cause anyone harm, which would be key to labeling his expose of classified secrets an act of terrorism.
The 2015 Charleston church shooting: Likely terrorism
Accounts of those who knew Dylann Roof and those who were at the church on Wednesday indicate that his motivation behind the shooting that left nine parishioners dead was racially motivated. Roof’s roommate said the man had talked about segregation and “starting a civil war.” Photos posted on Facebook showed Roof wearing clothing that was emblazoned with insignia symbolic of racist views. And according to one eyewitness at the church, Roof justified the shooting by saying that blacks were “raping our women and taking over the country.” If the shooting was motivated by Roof’s desire to intimidate blacks and/or incite others to commit similar acts, as the eyewitness accounts indicate, those would be the hallmarks of a terrorist act, and Roof would fit the description of a domestic terrorist.
There will be some who argue that just because the government defines terrorism one way or another does not mean the term “terrorism” can’t be applied in other cases. And perhaps it is long overdue for the public to revise what is or is not a terrorist act.
But to describe every act of mass murder or murderous atrocity as a terrorist act does more harm than good when it comes to understanding the motivations behind them — and that can hurt our ability to take steps to prevent them in the future.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.