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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  • John Avignone

    Two weeks later and you’re still flagellating that deceased equine? Give it a rest, dude. I understand you don’t agree. I also understand that it’s not up to either of us. It’s up to the prosecutors to decide how to file charges. They’ll make that decision based on both the facts of the case and what charge or charges they think they can make stick. So, enough, already. Sheesh.

  • caphillprof

    You need help with your terrorism fetish.

  • John Avignone

    No, you’re the one with the uncontrollable obsession. Four days later? Really? Been stewing that whole time? Wow. Get help. Before it’s too late.

  • caphillprof

    I’m not the one with the terrorism fetish

  • John Avignone

    WTF are you babbling about? Where do you imagine you saw me say this should only be prosecuted as terrorism? Obsessed much, dude? I’ll leave it up to the prosecutors to decide how to charge this nutbag. You have a problem with that? Jaybus Fracking Crisco, take your damn meds.

  • caphillprof

    So know you are going to have the prosecutor prove that the perpetrator (a) intended to terrorize (b) an identifiable group and (c) with the specific intent of a political purpose. This is far from clear in the KC synagogue/assisted living case. Did he intend to terrorize or did he simply intend to kill Jews? Why not look at the effect on a definable community and call it the hate crime that it is?

  • John Avignone

    Was it done with the intention of terrorizing an entire demographic or group for political purposes? Or was it just some nut randomly cranking off rounds at anyone he happened to encounter?

    What’s so damned hard to parse? Which of the definitions of “terrorism” is so confusing you? Perhaps you can find some helpful 8th grader to explain it to you using only very simple words you have some slight chance of actually comprehending.

  • caphillprof

    People in KC were terrified for weeks by a freeway sniper. Is that also domestic terrorism.? What do you gain by redefining crimes as terrorism? The only gain is an excuse to ignore law, deny rights, engage in torture and unleash the military.

  • John Avignone

    And where do you imagine you saw something/anything that says an act of terrorism can’t also be a hate crime or a hate crime an act of terrorism? By any possible definition, this qualifies as an act of domestic terrorism. It also qualifies as a hate crime. It’s also a fact that a single defendant can be charged under more than one statute. Happens all of the time. It’s not either/or. Why, some perps are prosecuted both by the state and the feds. Go figger, eh?

  • caphillprof

    Because if it is terrorism, other crimes and jurisdictions apply. Hate crimes include a consideration of affecting the intended group. A mugger can terrorize a neighborhood but we don’t call it terrorism. The DC sniper terrorized the entire Metro area but that was not called terrorism.

  • FLL

    The term “terrorism” is useful as long as domestic terrorism included. The suspect in the Kansas shootings is a former Ku Klu Klan leader. What the KKK has historically engaged in is domestic terrorism. Like terrorists everywhere else and throughout history, the KKK has killed and injured random people for the purpose of terrorizing an entire segment of the population. School textbooks need to recognize the historic (and sometimes current) activity of the KKK as domestic terrorism.

  • John Avignone

    Where do you imagine you saw me say anything whatsoever about getting rid of hate crimes, Mr. Strawman? I said no such thing, possibly because I believe no such thing. My point was and still is that by any authoritative definition of terrorism, this qualifies as an act of terrorism. Even Miller himself has said repeatedly that he’s out to foment terror, for example in a 2012 interview with Talking Points Memo.

  • LanceThruster

    Rachel Maddow managed to include 9/11 Truthers in her connect the dots of crazy. Seems a little convenient to link them. Guilt by association is dangerous territory to tread.

  • cole3244

    almost everyting the rw does is terrorism in one form or another.

  • MyrddinWilt

    Any crime as long as it isn’t actual terrorism.

    The Bundy ranch nutters waving guns in people’s faces in Nevada are threatening deadly force if they don’t get their way. Call them terrorists and the right would go nuts.

    Seems like the feds did the smart thing letting them alone for now. No point in arresting an army when its easy enough to take down their license plates and round them up later.

  • 4th Turning

    Great post. I don’t think I saw the word conscience mentioned above? So much of what is happening
    right now will have to be left to history to sort out and determine who were the heroes and who were
    the blackguards. It is not easy to abide such things as the obscenely rich being discussed on that other post. There is an immorality inherent which we are blinded to but which is painfully obvious to others watching our stuff go down. Anger festers when there is no hope of recourse and there are many open wounds right now.
    Which brings me to one of my current heroes. Chelsea. And incomprehensible family squabbling over
    an issue that seems like we should immediately be in full accord with.

  • Indigo

    Domestic terrorism is also terrorism and if the KKK isn’t a domestic terrorist organization dating back into the 19th century, then what it is?

  • Indigo

    You make a good point in identifying the trend to using words for emotive effect rather than content. With an insight like that, you qualify as a Rhetorician! :-)

  • MyrddinWilt

    Terrorism is a specific tactic: Use or threat of deadly force to create fear.

    I have no difficulty calling the bombing of abortion clinics, 9/11 and the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad terrorism.

    At this point it is too soon to call this particular attack. It looks like the idea was to create fear but we don’t yet know enough to say that was definitely the motive. It does appear to be a hate crime and the KKK was certainly a terrorist organization so its not exactly going out on a limb. But we have to get out of the stupid GOP idea that not calling an attack terrorist is saying its OK.

  • These days especially in an America that has lost control of its collective bowels and bladders, we seem to like to call any crime for which we have an emotional reaction, ‘terrorism.’ It is an abuse of the word, as well as a naked attempt to classify those crimes in such a way there is no burden of proof, no ‘beyond reasonable doubt,’ no attempt whatsoever at a fair trial or sentencing, and most of all, to replace justice with vigilante-style vengeance.

    Assuming a perpetrator is not mentally unbalanced, there are some crimes which are motivated by prejudicial bias. By most reputable accounts, the man who attacked the FRC offices was actually mentally unbalanced. There are also actions which, falling somewhat short of being classified crimes, are nevertheless expressions of bias and animus, such as where it is still perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay.

    There are crimes and actions which are motivated by hate. These are also not terrorism. Making someone nervous isn’t terrorism, like with that accidental glitter litter. A cream pie in Anita Bryant’s face wasn’t terrorism, but it was f*cking funny — but it also isn’t a hate crime either. A hate crime is going to a Jewish community center, screaming pro-Nazi slogans, and shooting people with the desire to kill them because the shooter thinks they’re Jewish. A legal action motivated by hate is the funeral pickets by Westboro Baptist Church. Hate groups like FRC legally spread lies about gay people in an effort to make overt LGBT oppression a reality, and to lobby for it to be illegal to be gay, also based on slander and lies.

    The Tsarnaev brothers were would-be terrorists, but the act they committed wasn’t an act of terrorism. Terrorism requires a message, a manifesto, some kind of stated purpose. Terrorism is far more easily established when the perpetrators are members of a larger group — which the Tsarnaevs were not. But it’s not an absolute requirement. Even if they don’t write it down, the true terrorist makes it clear to those around them exactly why they want to explode a bomb or release gas in a public place. Like the Atlanta Olympics bombing by Eric Rudolph, who made it clear his attack was motivated by politics, as well as Christian Identity extremism and anti-abortion and anti-gay hate.

    In other words, terrorism is more than bias-motivated crimes or hate crimes or even mass murder and mayhem.

    Every time now when the terrorism label is bandied around, what I actually hear is, “We don’t feel like giving them a fair trial because there’s a chance we might be denied our bloody vengeance and we can’t allow that under any circumstances.”

  • MyrddinWilt

    First thing we need to do is to understand that deciding that something isn’t terrorism isn’t the same as saying it is OK. The CIA torture program was awful and a war crime but it wasn’t terrorism by any useful definition.

    Right now I am in Turkey. I just gave a talk arguing that cyber-attacks should be considered an illegitimate form of warfare along with terrorism, biological and chemical weapons. But thats not the same as saying cyber-attacks are terrorism because it isn’t a useful definition. Oh yes and YouTube is still blocked here but thats not terrorism either.

    Use of the right word is important. Remember when Bill Maher lost his job because he pointed out that the 9/11 attack wasn’t ‘cowardly’. He was right, the attack wasn’t cowardly because the attackers put themselves at risk in the attack. Drone warfare is cowardly. Suicide bombings are perfidious, they are an attack by subterfuge.

    Getting the language right in my world is important because there are real policy differences. The stupidest error in my view is to call anything a ‘war’ unless it is a use of force as defined by the Geneva conventions. The war on poverty was maybe an excusable rhetorical flourish but nobody ever suggested or tried using paramilitary force to end poverty.

    The war on drugs and the war on terror have been disasters because they have followed military thinking. And the problem with the military is that nobody can be allowed to think independently until they become a general. And by then it is far to late to develop critical or imaginative thinking skills.

  • HolyMoly

    I think the word “terrorism” is thrown about a little too often these days, particularly if the perpetrator of a violent act happens to be Muslim. (“Treason” is another word that seems to be used ad nauseam, but it’s assigned more along ideological rather than racial lines.)

    If the government and MSM are going to continue spewing the word “treason” as if it were just another greenhouse gas, then let’s deep-six the double standards. A white guy who went on a killing spree should not be a “lone gunman” or a “troubled loner,” while a Muslim guy who did exactly the same thing (and sometimes far less) is labeled a “terrorist” (or you’ll see the Fox-style banner at the bottom of the screen: “Mohammed bin Mohammed: Terrorist?” with a question mark, of course, because they’re “just asking” or intend to “encourage discussion”).

    But what really SHOULD happen is that the government needs to, once and for all, come up with a concrete definition of the term with very stringent qualifications. For one, “terrorism” should be considered a very serious crime because, like hate crimes, the crime extends far beyond the initial act of violence. For another reason, because with any arbitrary accusation — like we have today — a stigma is attached to the (wrongfully) accused individual (glitter = “fake biological terrorism”) that stays with them for life. Try getting a good job with THAT on your record. Not to mention the fact that anyone with a Muslim name is automatically the victim of racial profiling in law enforcement, employment, and public places. The media must do its part as well and be a lot more responsible with their use of the word.

    As for the shooting at the Jewish community center, I’d classify the act as a hate crime, even though it seems both terrorism and hate crimes share one common thread — intimidation of a targeted group. But I think the distinction stops there. I also believe, though, that this guy has a good case for an insanity defense. Anyone who walks into a building and starts shooting indiscriminately, in my mind, has some serious mental problems. Whether he’s in a cell or in a mental institution, the important thing is to keep him off the streets for life.

  • jomicur

    Yes, the word has lost all objective meaning, like “fascism,” “socialism” and virtually all other words that used to have objective, clearly defined political meanings. In modern America words are used for their emotive effects, not to convey objective meaning. Terrorism has come to carry the connotation “anything I don’t like.” LGBT people demanding equality is terrorism. Porno Pete being stopped at the Canadian border is terrorism. The Day of Silence is terrorism. Demanding that Christians not discriminate is terrorism. The ACA is terrorism. Taxing the rich is terrorism.

    And it’s not just a phenomenon on the right. Within the last few weeks I’ve seen articles online claiming that bullying (another word that is fast losing its meaning) and climate change are both terrorism. When I objected to that use of the word I was told I am 1) a Republican and 2) a fascist. Theodore Sturgeon famously, and facetiously, defined science fiction as “what I say when I point to it.” Terrorism has moved into that same category, and there’s nothing facetious about it.

  • Sean

    In my understanding, an act of violence is “terrorism” when it seeks to achieve a political end. That could include forcing a government to change a policy, trying to change the system of government, or to instigate conflict or war between two groups or nations. The goal could also be to keep a minority down. The KKK lynchings in the old south would qualify, and so too do the videotaped torture sessions of young gay men in Russia. Hate and bigotry are almost always involved, but I think there must be a large ambition to impact society at large for it to be called “terrorism.”

  • 4th Turning

    First take a moment for an arnold girlieman weep…

  • caphillprof

    So should we get rid of hate crimes? Is a hate crime somehow insufficient? Can’t the criminal justice system deal with this? OR should we be calling out the troops from Fort Riley?

  • caphillprof

    So for you it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it. No definition required.

  • Elijah Shalis

    This was an act of terrorism. It was committed by a self espoused radical Christian whom was the leader of the KKK. I know Christians like to think they there are no extremists in their group but there are. People that fire bomb gay bars/clubs and abortion clinics etc.

  • Indigo

    I’m put in mind of the old-fashioned Supreme Court’s decision about “pornography.” One of the Justices is reported to have said, “I know it when I see it.” Indeed so, and indeed so with “terrorism” in these trying times just as, back during the Cold War, everything the propaganda crypto-bureau disapproved was “Communism.” Fine. Whatever. The pragmatic bottom line is that “terrorism” today is whatever our Lords & Masters tell us it is.

  • John Avignone

    IMO, there’s no question that this qualifies as terrorism. The intention, and indeed the result, was to terrorize an entire ethnic demographic. And screaming “Heil Hitler” for the cameras was an overt political act calculated to increase the impact. For obvious reasons, the Jewish community is impacted quite strongly by both.

  • caphillprof

    All very good questions, but I think the real question is not what is terrorism from the standpoint of the perpetrator or the “victims” (since we are all victims all the time these days, the word itself could use with some analysis), but from the standpoint of what the term enables, specifically a military as opposed to a police response, the wholesale disregard of constitutional and legal provisions, the justification of overwhelming counter violence, a permission for torture, among other things. If you can label something terrorism then you authorize a lawless response.

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