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Calling Terrorism by Its Name

What is terrorism? This question has lurked in the background of American public discourse for the past several weeks, in the midst of the Paris attacks carried out by ISIS on November 13, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on November 27, the San Bernardino shootings on December 2, and the more recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by a right-wing militia. Some have criticized initial attempts to label the San Bernardino attacks as “workplace violence” rather than terrorism (echoing criticisms of the failure to charge Maj. Nidal Hasan with terrorism in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting). Others have challenged the readiness of the media to label attacks perpetrated by Muslims as “terrorism” while refusing to do so in acts of violence instigated by white men, such as Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African-American church-goers in South Carolina, the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, and the Oregon standoff. Can we meaningfully use the term “terrorism” as a way to distinguish some criminal acts from others, or is it such a politically and rhetorically charged term that it is analytically useless?

Although Catholic ethics does not offer any specific answers to this question, it does offer two assets that can help us think through it. First, the Catholic tradition of casuistry has long insisted on providing precise definitions of actions. Although there is a great deal of disagreement on certain issues (for example, “direct” vs. “indirect” abortion), the disagreement itself is a product of the imperative for precise definition. Second, Catholic ethics is sensitive to how our moral and political discourse can reflect and reinforce unjust biases and inequalities. So if our discussions of terrorism do indeed reflect religious bigotry or white privilege, for example, Catholic ethics suggests that we cannot ignore these biases, but rather must challenge them.

It has become a cliché that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” but in fact current law provides us with a relatively clear definition of terrorism. For example, the U.S. Code’s definition of both “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” stipulates that the act must:

  • Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

This definition helps us distinguish terrorism from other crimes and acts of violence. As the second point makes clear, the distinguishing feature of terrorism is that the act of violence in essence has two targets: first, the victims of the attack; second, the public at large (whether “a civilian population” or “a government”) who witnesses the attack, and who potentially changes its behavior in some way because of fear of future attacks.

This last point distinguishes terrorism from organized crime, for example, because terrorism is only effective if its perpetrators and their aims are publicly recognized, whereas organized crime depends on secrecy. Likewise, terrorism differs from most of the mass shootings we have experienced in the United States in recent years, such as that at Virginia Tech in 2007, in which the victims are the sole target. It is true that in some cases, such as that of Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, the perpetrator seeks a public audience, but this is typically for personal self-aggrandizement rather than political motivations. Likewise, although workplace violence and school shootings leave people fearful about entering public places, usually this is not the intent of the perpetrator, who was focused on the immediate victims. With this or a similar definition in hand, we ought then to avoid any sloppy application of the term “terrorism” to cases where it does not apply.

But it also means we must unflinchingly apply it in cases where it does apply. This must include the recent Planned Parenthood shooting (if the perpetrator, Robert Lewis Dear is indeed mentally competent) and the Charleston church massacre. Dear’s acts were intended to cause fear among abortion providers for dealing in “baby parts,” and Dylann Roof sought to incite a “race war” through his actions; both clearly had a public audience in mind beyond their immediate victims.

Our media’s hesitance to label these attacks as terrorism does show that we often use the term less as a description of a particular type of violent act and more as a political label. It is easier to label as “terrorists” people whose motivations seem foreign, whose very otherness is a source of fear regardless of their actions. One only needs look at recent cases of Muslim passengers being removed from flights for spurious reasons to see this fear in action. Likewise, when acts of violence are motivated by more extreme versions of beliefs held by a large percentage of the population (such as the pro-life position), or make plain the ongoing reality of shameful social problems (such as racial inequality and prejudice), then the temptation is strong to withhold the “terrorist” label.

Similarly, we tend to conflate ideology with actions, often letting a person’s beliefs stand in for critically analyzing what they have done. For example, the Shining Path was a Maoist terrorist group in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s that carried out a number of terrorist attacks, but the group was engaged in a guerrilla war against the government; their terror attacks were only a sub-set of other acts of violence that also included more traditional military actions. But their use of terrorism enabled the Peruvian government to label the entire organization and its supporters as “terrorists.” Looking at beliefs rather than actions opens up a Pandora’s Box where innocent people can be labeled as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. For example, in Peru peasant activists and even journalists critical of the military’s waging of the anti-guerrilla campaign were labeled in this way. This is an extreme example, but we can already see something similar in Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all foreign Muslims from entering the country.

The San Bernardino shootings provide an interesting example of how this conflation can lead to unclear thinking about terrorism. Initial reports indicated that Syed Farook had left the Christmas party of the county health department where he worked after an argument, returning a short while later with his wife Tashfeen Malik, armed with pipe bombs, semi-automatic weapons, and tactical gear. The combination of a workplace dispute with an apparent planned act of terror proved baffling:

If terrorism, why target co-workers at an obscure holiday party in a small city that many Americans can’t find on a map? . . . If this was workplace violence, why the enormous arsenal of bullets and the dozen pipe bombs in the rented home?

This past Tuesday, the FBI announced that witness interviews have revealed that Farook was likely not involved in a dispute and that the attack was planned far in advance, although the personal nature of the target remains unusual. Still, the terrorism investigation proceeded for nearly a month on the assumption that the workplace dispute at the party did in some way spur the attack. What then justified the certainty that we were dealing with an act of terrorism? The primary clues were the stockpiled weaponry and planning involved, as well as the discovery that Farook and Malik had been in contact with foreign terrorists, and that the latter had even declared her allegiance to ISIS. But is that sufficient? Clearly the two had been planning some kind of public attack similar to that in Paris, but if they had drawn on their weaponry and planning for a spur of the moment attack motivated by a workplace dispute, would that have really been terrorism? What if Farook and Malik had engaged in a “road rage” attack similar to the notorious incident in Las Vegas in February of last year? I am being a little fantastical, but my point is that not every act of violence carried out by an ISIS member or someone inspired by ISIS is an act of terrorism.

The Oregon standoff presents another difficult case. It is certainly true that right-wing extremist terrorism is a serious problem in the United States, and indeed Jerad and Amanda Miller, who killed two police officers in Las Vegas in 2014, had taken part in the standoff on Cliven Bundy’s ranch earlier that year. But it would be wrong to label the militia members involved in the Oregon standoff as terrorists simply because of their extremist views or the actions of others with similar views. We have to carefully analyze their actions.

Obviously the militia members in Oregon seek “to influence the policy of a government,” to quote the U.S. Code, and have threatened violence. But unlike, say, ISIS’s attack in Paris where fear of future attacks was intended to bring about a change in France’s foreign policy in Syria, the Oregon militia members have not engaged in a real act of violence. Their takeover of the visitor center is clearly a criminal act, but perhaps we could say their threat of violence against law enforcement is no different from a robbery suspect who threatens to shoot the police to avoid capture, not an act of terrorism.

I do not find this argument completely persuasive, however. In this case, unlike that of the robber, the threat of violence creates something like a hostage situation; the militia members have given law enforcement two options, to bend to their demands or enforce the law, and they in turn have promised violence if the latter option is chosen. So in essence it is the threat of violence that is being used to convince the government to bend to the extremists’ demands. Given that we are dealing with threats rather than acts of violence, I think we will have to wait and see how the situation plays out before definitively deciding if we have witnessed an act of terrorism. And whether or not that is the case does not diminish the fact that these extremists have engaged in serious crimes against the government.

As the cases of the San Bernardino shootings and the Oregon standoff show, whether to describe acts of violence as “terrorism” is not always straight forward. We should not let this ambiguity, however, serve as an excuse for using the term “terrorism” in rhetorical ways that lack precision and that reinforce our society’s cultural and racial biases. Catholics should be able to draw on their own tradition to bring analytical rigor to the discussion and a commitment to challenging the ways political rhetoric reinforces structural injustices.

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