In the wake of a mass killing, there is always a conversation about the selective use of the word terrorism, which is undoubtedly a very worthy conversation to have. Unfortunately, on the left this conversation too often draws one of two incorrect conclusions: Many people, noting the disparity between how public officials and media uncontroversially label large crimes committed by Islamists, terrorism, while categorizing things like Sandy Hook as something else, credit this disparity to racism alone. The remedy, they feel, is to label both types of mass killings terrorism, presumably on the assumption that in both cases non-combatants and the surrounding community were “terrorized.”
An alternative argument in the same realm that Glenn Greenwald and others advance, is that the instrumentalized use of the word terrorism, where U. S. state power largely defines it and applies it mostly to advance foreign policy objectives, renders the term essentially meaningless. The implied recommendation of this argument is to stop using the word and to regard the state’s use of it with skepticism and hostility.
I entirely agree with the first group that racism certainly features in the disparate use of the word. I entirely agree with the second group that we should regard the state’s use with the same skepticism with which any intelligent person regards everything the state does.
However, I am opposed to radically changing the generally understood meaning of the word, which I believe equating Sandy Hook and, say, The Boston Bombing does. I also oppose entirely discarding the word, or wishing for its abandonment, or repeatedly insisting on its utter meaninglessness, the way that Greenwald et al. do.
The meaning of terrorism is not uniquely ambiguous, which is one reason I would argue for its continued use, with its traditional meaning. By most accounts, terrorism is the use of violence against non-combatants to achieve a political end. As far as I know, there is no other word that encapsulates that meaning, which is reason enough for not playing fast and loose with it. That it’s application has legal consequences is another reason to not surrender its definition and use to the state.
As definitions go, I believe it invites very little confusion among people of good faith. It’s not terribly hard to determine whether a terrible crime against non-combatants was politically motivated or not, if you have no stake in muddying the water. There is no evidence that Sandy Hook was intended to have political reverberations. Muslim terrorism — to the extent it even truly exists domestically — has clearly stated political aims. Therefore Islamist crimes committed to further those aims are inarguably terrorist.
I think any objective person who accepts the conventional definition would agree that the following are all also terrorism:
- The shooting of an abortion doctor by an anti-choice extremist
- A car-bombing of an Iranian nuclear scientist
- A killing spree by a member of a white supremacy group, that clearly targets racial and religious minorities
- The beating or murder of a transgendered person because she or he is transgendered
- The murder of Black church attendees by a demonstrably racist individual or group
- The “shock and awe” strategy at the start of the war with Iraq
- Economic sanctions that result in death from starvation, malnutrition or lack of medicine
These things are not terrorism
- A killing spree by a lone shooter whose targets are genuinely random based on the evidence
- A cross-burning
- Blowing up a bank during non-business hours and injuring no one
- Rescuing animals from farms and laboratories
- Tree spiking
What distinguishes the first list from the second is that both conditions — political intent and violence — are only present in all the items on the first list.
The one problem with this definition is that the state defines property destruction as violence. That argues for insisting that property destruction and violence, are distinct, not abandonment of the word terrorism. Property destruction that intentionally, though indirectly, results in physical damage to a person or death, such as blowing up a pharmaceutical factory to deliberately create medical problems for the target population would obviously be terrorism.
I have no idea whether or not the ACLU and the Nazis in Skokie Fan Club have ever attempted to argue that legally separating terrorism from more random crimes is a violation of the First Amendment. They certainly should, though, if they are going to continue to insist that a cross-burning, or the word “faggots” painted on the window of an LGBQT bar are simply vandalism.
I have perhaps over-simplified things a little bit. People might argue that scale has to also factor in, and that the murder of, say, a single transgendered person is a hate crime but not terrorism. I think they would be wrong, though, since the murder of one transgendered person is intended to terrify and marginalize all transgendered people. That’s violence for a political objective, no less than the murder of an abortion doctor or the car-boming of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
One could also make arguments that determination of whether or not an act of violence is terrorism be contingent less on demonstrating intention than the effect it produces. For instance, there is no question that Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant, which was allegedly done to hit particular targets, produced the exact same effect for the population it would have had his goal been to produce that effect. This is still mostly adherent to the traditional meaning of terrorism but, for the state — the only kind of terrorism where intent is ambiguous or concealed — it negates the hairsplitting and mendacity attending the distinction between intentionally killing and knowingly doing so.
It’s unlikely that objective people will agree on everything if they embrace a traditional meaning of terrorism, but I think they will agree on most things. That’s better than giving up on the word entirely, because the state certainly won’t.