A gunman walks into a public building and begins to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd. His goal is utilitarian: He wants to inflict the most harm and create the most panic possible within the crowd. He has no specific target other than the symbolic nature of the venue he is attacking—a symbol worthy of his violent outrage. The gunman sees no faces of his victims; instead, he sees hapless enablers of a status quo that he finds immoral, repugnant, and evil.
This could easily have described what transpired in Paris a few weeks ago or what happened in Colorado Springs just the other day. Despite their similarities, one keyword will not be used equally in their description.That word is “terrorism.”
Since 9/11, the American consciousness has created a unique space for how we define terrorism. When it comes to violent jihadists, the use of the term has been easily applied and leveraged with reckless abandon. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, ISIS—these are terrorists. Though these groups differ in tactics, governance, and mission, Americans don’t equivocate on this label.
However, the definition of terrorism starts to fumble in its clarity when applied to violence at home. In response to the violence of Robert Lewis Dear, Jared Lee Loughner, Dylann Roof, James Holmes, and many other American citizens responsible for mass violence, public leaders and talking heads appear gun shy to throw out the word “domestic terrorism.”
Why is this?
The Department of Justice defines terrorism as “violent acts” intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population… influence the policy of a government… or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” The distinction between international and domestic terrorism is mostly the point of origin.
Loughner intended to assassinate a political figure. Roof wanted to incite a race war in the United States. Though speculative at this point, initial accounts of Dear highlight his deep-seeded outrage about abortion. It would seem based on their motives, these individuals could be easily classified as terrorists—but that's not the case.
So then what makes one case of mass violence an act of terrorism and others not?
Many proponents of prosecuting Dear et. al. as “domestic terrorists” point out that most of these perpetrators are white males, hinting that ethnic and religious bigotry are warping our perception of terrorism. The difference between a mass shooter and a terrorist is a matter of skin color or what church he attends, they argue.Though they may have a point as to how these events are covered in the media, law enforcement numbers tell a different story.
A FBI report on terrorism demonstrates that the majority of domestic terrorism in the U.S. since 2002 was not carried out by jihadist groups, but rather by “special interest extremists active in the animal rights and environmental movements.”
It’s difficult to quantify the multifaceted nature of terrorism, but estimates range between 2.5 to 10 percent of domestic terrorism cases involving “Islamic extremists.” This indicates that an overwhelming majority of domestic terrorism investigations target non-Muslim actors.
Furthermore, the largest case of domestic terrorism to occur in the United States was facilitated by white males: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Both were formally tried and convicted on terrorism charges.
So does the weapon used determine whether or not something is classified as terrorism?
The Boston Marathon bombing was easily defined as a case of terrorism due to the murderous hardware used to carry out the attack. In the pile of federal charges amassed against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the use of “a weapon of mass destruction” (namely, his homemade bombs) is specified under U.S. criminal codes for terrorism.
But the same cannot be said about mass violence through the barrel of a gun. Mass shootings don’t automatically count as terrorism according to the DOJ’s code. If a charge is not specifically codified (such as bombs being a WMD, but not guns), prosecutors have to demonstrate “aggravating factors” to make a case about terrorism.
As a result, many aren’t going to take on the challenge of defining a nebulous crime in the court room. The goal of a prosecutor is to put somebody behind bars, and asking a jury to define a tenuous term like terrorism runs the risk of weakening the case made by the state. First-degree murder is cut and dry; terrorism isn’t.
Furthermore, judging by how divisive the issue of guns is to the American public, finding consensus on how we differentiate between “domestic terrorism” and “mass shootings” will not likely occur in the near future.
Keep in mind that there was an actual debate on classifying the 2009 Fort Hood shootings as a case of “domestic terrorism” versus “workplace violence.” Also, one can imagine the political theater that will occur if gun lobby catches wind of any effort to codify any firearm as a WMD.
But wait—if guns don’t equate to terrorism, then can it be argued that the Paris attacks weren’t terrorism then? Or what about the Charlie Hebdo or Fort Hood shootings for that matter? Though bombs were used during the Paris attacks, the majority of the bloodshed occurred via rifle: Of the 130 killed during the attacks, 128 died from fatal gunshot wounds.
Bullets claimed more lives than shrapnel. Yet, American public officials—including the majority of current presidential candidates—did not hesitate in using the word “terrorism” to describe what transpired on that horrific day.
The argument being made here is not one calling for more legislation. It’s not a plea for more gun control or a more aggressive prosecution of these heinous crimes.
Instead, I would like to pose a more critical question: If we cannot adequately define terrorism—specifically how it is carried out domestically in the United States—then how do expect to ever “win a war” against it internationally?