When is a mass shooting “terrorism”?

Was the Family Research Council shooter a terrorist?

Authorities have just charged a Virginia man with “terrorism” for entering the Family Research  Council’s offices earlier this year with a gun, seemingly with the intent to cause harm.  Which raises an interesting ‘question: What is terrorism?

I have to admit I was a bit surprised when I heard that this was considered “terrorism.”  Is every use of a gun with an intent to harm someone terrorism (though I’m curious why I don’t recall other mass shootings have not been considered “terrorist” incidents while this one is).  Obviously not.

Do you have to have more than one victim?  Probably not – Al Qaeda could send a lone gunman after the President.

Do the possible political motivations of the perpetrator make it terrorism?  They problem help in that I think you have to have some kind of political element for a crime to be terrorism, but then again, what if some nut wants to blow up buses across the city, simultaneously, just cuz he’s nuts.  Is that terrorism?  I’d think so. But then again, maybe it’s not if we’re actually trying to give the word “terrorism” some definition beyond just “intent to kill more than one person.”

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

I worry sometimes that our country has gotten a little scared of its own shadow since 9/11.  I remember a story from a few years ago, think it was some European friends, who came to the US to visit, and could not believe how “terror” focus we were – every day the news had some report about “terrorism.” And remember that crazy  terror level color alert system?  It’s an important topic (someone should inform Mitt Romney), but does it feel to anyone else like we’ve all become a bit obsessed, and obsessive, about it?

I was in UK on July 11, 2005 when London suffered a series of bomb attacks on the public transport system.  I went into London that afternoon to join friends for lunch, and people were out and about like nothing happened, sitting at outdoor restaurants, using public transportation even (I can’t image we’d use it for months after such an attack, and if then, every other seat would be occupied by a Marine with a machine gun). We even saw Michael Stipe strolling through Kensington Gardens.

Of course it was a big deal to them, but at the same time, it wasn’t that big a deal.  I was shocked by how not panicked they were, considering how bad things were here on September 11, which admittedly was a larger attack, but I think if someone simultaneously blew up three metro stations and a public bus, Washington, DC would be pretty much shut down for days.

Kensington Gardens

Kensington Gardens

Later that evening, we were walking by Buckingham Palace.  There was a cop at the entrance we were walking by.  He came over to talk to us.  And once I got past the shock of “a” single cop guarding an entrance to Buckingham Palace right after a terrorist attack, he told us that we had to understand the motivations behind the attack, and he said it in a way that meant, you’ve got to sympathize with where they’re coming from.

I was astounded.

I’m not sure what lesson to take away from all of this. Maybe because London has simply seen more terror in it’s 2000 years than we have (like the Blitz during WWII), and also in part due to their nature, the Brits were a bit more reserved than we’d have been in their stead. And I couldn’t help but feeling that their response was better, and healthier, and ultimately more effective.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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