The Public Humanist

What is a Terrorist?: The Difficulty in a Definition

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of three articles in which Patrick Vitalone explores the term terrorist though lenses of jurisprudence, history, and other humanities disciplines. Part one can be found here.

In 2015, a young man named Dylan Roof opened fire in a predominantly African-American church in South Carolina, killing nine members. Before the event, Roof had published his intentions on an online political forum, going on to say that “I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my State, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess it has to be me.” Few had labeled Roof a terrorist, and the Federal government failed to try the shooting as an act of terror. Rather, Attorney General Loretta Lynch opted for a hate crime, among thirty-three other offenses.  Only a year earlier, another South Carolina man opened fire on an abortion clinic. In 2014, Robert Lewis Dear proclaimed that Americans should “turn to Jesus or burn in hell,” and that “god made woman out of mans [sic] side sorry but womans [sic] lib [sic] cant [sic] change it.” He then opened fired upon a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing a mother of three, a local police officer and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Dear was later found to be incompetent, telling a detective “he dreamed of being met in heaven by aborted fetuses who would thank him for his actions.”

The arguments against labeling these figures as terrorists are often mired in detail.

What is the difference between a belief in ethereal fetuses and virgins awaiting a martyr in heaven? If there is no difference in the extremism, why does the West fail to find Islamic terrorists as mentally ill aberrations to their religion? “If we are going to use the language of terrorism.” David Paul argues. “We have to be careful to apply it consistently. We cannot apply different standards because a person is either Christian or white.” Many, including the New York Times, considered Dear more of a “gentle loner” who suffered from debilitating mental illness, while one of the only public figures to plainly label Dear’s actions as domestic terrorism was avid anti-abortion activist Mike Huckabee. “What [Dear] did is domestic terrorism.” Huckabee explained to CNN. “And what he did is absolutely abominable . . . There’s no legitimizing or rationalizing. It was mass murder.”

The arguments against labeling these figures as terrorists are often mired in detail.  Just Security’s Faiza Patel and Adrienne Tierney write that, “as Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted when announcing the charges against Roof, there is no singular crime of domestic terrorism encompassing acts of politically motivated violence. Instead, Federal Law specifies a wide array of terrorism related offenses, regardless of intent, including hijacking an airplane, assassinating a government official, detonating certain kinds of explosives or chemical weapons, or bombing a government facility. This structure allows allows prosecutors to seek high terrorism penalties while avoiding problems of proving that the perpetrators actually have the motives characteristic of terrorism.” In short, attempting to try Roof as a terrorist would have made it harder to successfully convict him. In Dear’s case, Cathy Young at Newsday offers a subjective distinction between Christian sects and Islamic fundamentalists; “ . . . Dear evidently struggled with mental illness. Yet even if religion was part of what drove him to deadly violence, the parallel to jihadism fails in some important ways. Terrorism rooted in a radical version of political Islam is a worldwide network that includes multiple organizations, including the Islamic State, which seeks to build its theocratic utopia on Earth. Various forms of violent jihad are espoused by a depressingly large number of Muslim clerics and scholars, including many who denounce some Islamist terror groups . . . By contrast, churches and groups that oppose abortion in the United States have unequivocally condemned violence against abortion clinics.” These analyses fail to acknowledge that the media and public offer psychoanalyses for some violent actors while applying a broad terrorist brushstroke to others. Performing another news search about Anders Breivik, modifying the query to include “Anders Breivik terrorist” fetched only articles about Ali Sonboly; the German boy of Iranian descent who shot and killed nine people outside of a Munich McDonald’s. Early terrorist labels led the New York Times to publish a clarifying report, and yet Sonboly was indeed mentally ill; bullied by his classmates. Motivated to violence by insecurities about his identity, the shooter wasn’t following any Islamic creed; rather, he admired mass shootings as a means of vengeance and sought inspiration from Anders Breivik among others.

Images via Google news

Images via Google news

The standards by which we call someone a terrorist may be part religious and racial discrimination; but hesitating to label individual or group violence as domestic terror appears wise when looking into history. Trust among the citizenry is crucial to national unity; and when that trust gives in to paranoia it can lead to civil war or worse. In fact, “terror” as political terminology emerged in France during its calamitous revolution under Maximilian Robespierre. Leading a group of twelve men; Robespierre and his Jacobin Committee of Public Safety were soon able to determine a civilian’s fate based upon their political motives; and what was once an idealistic revolution centered on monarchical reform descended into mass hysteria and tyranny. As Marisa Linton writes for History Today, “A delegation of the forty-eight sections of sans-culottes urged the Convention to ‘make Terror the order of the day!’ The Jacobins responded: the Law of Suspects was passed on September 17th, 1793, giving wide powers of arrest to the committees, and defining ‘suspects’ in broad terms . . . For the first time in history terror became an official government policy, with the stated aim to use violence in order to achieve a higher political goal.” In Revolutionary France; while terrorists were the ones in power, violence as a means to achieve a political objective was legitimized. Domestic enemies were given a broad label that abolished their civil rights; ‘counter revolutionaries,’ they were called. Such enemies at home were dispatched with little consideration, killed quickly under an infamous guillotine. As Robespierre himself had said, “terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice.”

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