The deadly attack on the Jewish community center, was it “terrorism”?

CNN’s Jake Tapper, who I’ve always admired for, among other things, his willingness to say what other people are thinking, asked on CNN yesterday whether the “hate crime” that took three lives outside a Jewish community center in Kansas City, Kansas would have instead been called “terrorism” had the shooter yelled “allahu akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.

Jake’s question, I’d argue, is really several wrapped in one:

1. What is the definition of “terrorism,” and what should it be?

2. Are we under-defining terrorism, i.e., not calling it terrorism when it really is?

3. Are we over-defining terrorism, i.e., calling everything “terrorism,” and thus watering down the meaning of the word?

4. Does the word terrorism serve any real purpose?

London, July 7, 2005. ©John Aravosis

London, July 7, 2005. ©John Aravosis

The word “terrorism” does seem to get thrown around a lot, until it’s not.  The religious right officially-designated hate group “Family Research Council” called a young Virginia man who came to their headquarters in DC with a gun, and shot a security guard in the arm, a “terrorist.”  He was allegedly motivated by FRC’s visceral anti-gay bias.

Putting aside for a moment that there’s a reason the FRC has been designated a hate group (honesty isn’t their strong suit), is the appellation accurate?

And same question about the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – were they “terrorists“?

NEW YORK CITY, NY - SEP 2: Light beams are lit at the site in memory of World Trade Center destroyed on September 11. September 11, 2010 in Manhattan, New York City. Songquan Deng /

NEW YORK CITY, NY – SEP 2: Light beams are lit at the site in memory of World Trade Center destroyed on September 11. September 11, 2010 in Manhattan, New York City. Songquan Deng /

Or how about when some environmental protesters unfurled a banner that had glitter on it, and the police claimed it was “fake biological terrorism”?  Was it, really?

Then there are big companies like HSBC who facilitated, you know, actual terrorism. They got a slap on the wrist, and most certainly were not accused of being terrorists themselves. Should they have been?

I’d visited this topic during the Boston Marathon bombing, and even looked up the CIA’s and the US Department of Justice’s definitions of “terrorism,” and didn’t find either terribly conclusive.  First, here’s the CIA definition:

Q: How do you define terrorism?

A: The Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.
The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

Then there’s the DOJ, which first quotes the US Code (which the CIA does above), then adds this:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.

But these definitions still seem to fall short.

I’m not entirely sure what terrorism is, but I do know what it isn’t.  For example, if I were ticked at my friend Jesse in the White House for not getting 13.6 million people insured under Obamacare, instead of “just” getting 13.5 million people insured, and I punched him in the noise, would that be terrorism?  It would be the unlawful use of force or violence against a person to intimidate or coerce the US government to enact my political goals.  But it’s hardly terrorism.

The same Russian terrorists who successfully blew up a train station last month are now promising to kill tourists at the Sochi winter Olympics next month.

And that lone guy bringing a gun to the FRC. Dumb idea, rather amateur, and he was acting alone – for me, it just doesn’t feel like terrorism.

How about the Boston Marathon bombing? The mass injuries feel like terror, bombs feel like terror, the potential for mass death feels like terror.  So what if the kid who went to FRC had ended up killing 50 people – would the mass violence make the crime “terrorism”?

In the end, is terrorism a meaningless word? And worse, might the word skew our perspective in a bad way?

After all, the far right of the Republican party thinks the four American deaths at Benghazi, Libya are the worst thing to happen in over two hundred years of the Republic.  I think it’s because the GOP thinks Benghazi was “terrorism” (even though they still lack any conclusive evidence indicating it was tied to Al Qaeda, rather than simply being an angry crowd that was PO’d about a bigoted movie). But if we call Benghazi a “terrorist attack,” does it not imbue the crime with extra meaning?  Should it?

Boston-Marathon-front-pageIs losing four Americans at Benghazi really worse than losing 239 people in Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?  Is it worse than the nearly 32,000 gun firearm deaths in America every year? Worse than the nearly 34,000 motor vehicle deaths?  Or the nearly 43,000 poisoning deaths?

One could make the same argument about hate crimes themselves: A dead man is a dead man, and it doesn’t matter what the motivation – he’s been murdered.  Though hate crimes get at a much larger crime, an attempt to intimidate an entire community.  And the crimes are seen in the context of a larger hate the community has had to deal with throughout history.  So the crimes are perceived as something bigger than simply the injury to the immediate victims.

Is “terrorism,” like “hate crimes,” a special crime that deserves more attention, more gravitas, than any other murder? Or is it a word that’s so over-used, and so vague, that it does more harm than good?

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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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