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Not All Shooting Sprees Are Terrorism


For a long time it seemed many liberals couldn’t utter the phrase “terrorism.” President Obama even dropped “terrorism” from the war on terror. In recent months and especially this past week, however, liberals have finally started to embrace talking about terrorism.

Unfortunately, many pundits and journalists have either been misapplying terrorism or intentionally misusing the charge for political purposes. The New York Daily News is a prime offender. On December 4, they published National Rifle Association (NRA) President Wayne LaPierre’s photo on their front page, alongside the photos of some of America’s most infamous mass shooters, calling all of them terrorists.

Smearing the NRA as terrorists is standard fare for New York’s daily bird cage-lining rag. On October 3, it published a column by its own Linda Stasi calling for the State Department to list the NRA as a terrorist organization.

It is just a bit more surprising and irresponsible that the Daily News printed LaPierre’s photo just five days after publishing Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains President Vicki Cowart’s comments that she thought “hateful language [and] hateful speech” contributed to the shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.

Television anchors asked Republican politicians if they would modify their language. But no Republican lawmaker has called the Planned Parenthood head a terrorist, nor have they called Planned Parenthood their “enemy” with the righteous fury Hillary Clinton and other Democrats hurled at the NRA at their debate. Hillary even compared opponents of abortion to terrorists and the NRA to “the Iranians or the communists.”

Murder Isn’t Terrorism

Labeling democratic activism as terrorism is the kind of thing authoritarian governments do to silence their critics. Beyond the irresponsible, illiberal, and hypocritical smear against a non-violent activist, the Daily News cover is wrong for misapplying the terrorist label to two psychopathic thugs who are not terrorists—the Sandy Hook shooter and the Aurora shooter.

Labeling democratic activism as terrorism is the kind of thing authoritarian governments do to silence their critics.

To make this distinction is not to excuse or show sympathy for the savages, for they deserve not. Murder is wrong for any reason. But terrorism is a different thing than a random shooting and requires a different response. Confusing the two would make our response less effective.

The definition of terrorism in the U.S. Code is a good starting point: “the term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents…”

Legal definitions applied by the United States, United Kingdom, and many Western countries all include a requirement for terroristic violence to be “politically motivated.” There are substantive debates about whether violence against military personnel constitutes terrorism and whether violence perpetuated by the state should be considered terrorism (as the U.S. government’s definition excludes), but those questions are irrelevant to the shootings in question, all of which were conducted by non-state individuals and targeted civilians.

Some governments do have definitions of terrorism that are so broad as to include non-politically motivated violence, or non-violent political activism, that can result in the state arresting protesters on terrorism charges, but those undemocratic measures, like proposals to label the NRA terrorists, must be avoided in our constitutional republic.

We Talk This Way in Real Life, Too

Legal definitions are one thing, but language exists in the popular parlance as well. I propose that the definition requiring political motivation is right and should be accepted and used by the public. The end game of terrorism is not just to murder people. Rather, the murders are intended to intimidate us into acting in accord with the terrorist’s beliefs.

The murders are intended to intimidate us into acting in accord with the terrorist’s beliefs.

Think about the fatwa against “The Satanic Verses” or the murder of Theo van Gogh and the Charlie Hebdo attack. The point of each of those brutalities was to scare people into shutting up about Islam. They were largely successes insomuch as many media outlets have subsequently censored publication of newsworthy cartoons mocking Muhammad or Islam.

When James Holmes stepped into the theatre and pulled the trigger, spraying wildly at the 100 or so people watching “The Dark Knight,” what was his motivation? What was he trying to coerce people into doing or refraining from doing? Many of these shootings have no discernible ideological motivation. Perhaps they are inspired by a disturbed young man’s sexual frustration and sick need for fame after failing at life, as Tom Nichols argued here earlier this year. (That factor can also be coupled with ideologically motivated shootings.)

Whatever it is, in the case of the Aurora theatre shooting and most school shootings, the shooters usually do not leave evidence they picked their targets for broad political reasons that exist beyond themselves, and if they don’t have such motivations, their attacks will not have coercive effects beyond the carnage. If the target is chosen randomly and for no rational reason, then the victims would be just as at risk no matter where they were.

What This Means about Charleston and Colorado Springs

This means the Charleston shooting can be called terrorism based on what we know, and after more evidence comes out, the Planned Parenthood shooting could also turn out to be terrorism. Dylann Roof was quite clear that his motivation to attack an African-American church was racism. He attacked blacks as a race and railed specifically against miscegenation and “race mixing.” This shows his intent was to intimidate African-Americans, to make them feel unsafe in public places and in expressing themselves on racial issues.

Dylann Roof was quite clear that his motivation to attack an African-American church was racism.

The perpetrator of the Colorado Springs shooting was said by an unnamed authority to have referenced “baby parts” and expressed anti-abortion views in his interview. While the full information about his motive has not yet been released, this suggests he could have targeted Planned Parenthood, like Scott Roeder targeting George Tiller, in order to intimidate people out of getting or performing abortions. If that is indeed his motivation, then he too is a terrorist.

That those shootings were politically motivated makes them somewhat more significant in the public view. They might make someone who wants to use one of his constitutionally protected rights just a little bit more apprehensive about doing so. Terrorism is both an attack on the immediate victims’ rights to life and the public’s right to live their lives. We need a separate word to describe it.