Terrorism, Tragedy, and Semantics

breaking news


In moments of tragedy the news relentlessly repeats itself and covers any and every angle to fill the void between press releases. It is hard to avoid the over-analysis and, for me at least, equally difficult to resist it. But I know that there is no new information and for now everything is speculation, so to occupy myself until the latest development I am joining the over-analysis–not about the event itself but amount the semantics.

As soon as it happened it was clear that it was an intentional attack and that it was caused by explosive devices, but there was also a hesitancy to label it a “terrorist attack”. Who, besides a terrorists, uses bombs to kill random civilians? When do large-scale acts of violence count as terrorism and when are they simply “attacks”?

The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as follows:

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) 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; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

This definition has affected how things are investigated and prosecuted (and coincidentally expands what groups are considered terrorist–now including the Animal Liberation Front) since 2002. Pretty straightforward, right?

duck or other


Well, a number of post-Patriot Act attacks have been controversially not classified as “terrorism”. In 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on the Fort Hood military base killing 13 and injuring 30 others before being shot and apprehended. Hasan communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki (a Yemeni Imam and high-ranking Al-Qaeda recruiter killed in 2011 by a drone) via email though the FBI says the communication “posed no threat”. Clearly, the Fort Hood incident was dangerous to human life, so (A) is covered. It is not clear what he intended when he opened fire but the FBI and US Army determined that he acted alone and so have chosen to prosecute this as an act of “workplace violence” rather than terrorism. Many, including Newt Gingrich, Senator Lieberman, and the victim’s families, have criticized the classification. His court-martial is set to begin May 29, 2013.

Mass shootings are controversial enough without trying to get every madman with gun classified as a terrorist. But a guy flying a plan into a building that should be pretty straight forward right? In 2010, Joseph Stack III flew a plane into an IRS office building located in Austin, TX. This “criminal assault on a federal officer”, as it has been classified, killed one victim (plus the pilot) and injured thirteen others. Stack was being audited by the US, held extremist anti-government views, and posted a rambling suicide note that was critical of the government and called for violent revolt. After the attack his Facebook page was flooded with supporters (quickly taken down by FB), his own daughter called him a “hero” for “speaking out against ‘injustice’ and ‘the government'”, and others have said they don’t support the act but agree with the sentiment. Stack intended (however foolishly) to affect the conduct of the government. Again, people have criticized the government’s classification of the incident. Notably, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement claiming:

Whenever an individual or group attacks civilians in order to make a political statement, that is an act of terror. Terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the faith, race or ethnicity of the perpetrator or the victims. If a Muslim had carried out the IRS attack, it would have surely been labeled an act of terrorism.

Despite the legal definition offered by the Patriot Act, it seems the most critical factor in determining if something is domestic terrorism or not is ties to a larger terrorist organization. An individual with extreme views, whether influenced by terrorist groups or not, is not typically classified as a terrorist.

In the case of terrorism, the Oxford English Dictionary seems to offer a more accurate definition than the law:

The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims; (originally) such practices used by a government or ruling group (freq. through paramilitary or informal armed groups) in order to maintain its control over a population; (now usually) such practices used by a clandestine or expatriate organization as a means of furthering its aims.

Organizations, be they government or “clandestine”, commit acts of terror while individuals are responsible for tragedies. Is this merely semantics? Does it matter what we call it? Is there anything to be gained by expanding the scope of “terrorism” to include lone wolfs? Obama said that, “any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror”. Yet, I suspect who and with who’s help will matter as much as intent and motivation in the official classification of this tragedy. Only time will tell.


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