Terrible, yes, but was it terrorism?

I’m loathe to post a video from Fox, below, but even a broken GOP propaganda organ occasionally delves into interesting questions, even if they normally give skewed answers. To wit: A discussion about whether the Boston Marathon bombing was “terrorism.”

Which raises the question: How do we define “terrorism”?

In the old days, it often had a foreign connotation. But Timothy McVeigh was American, and the Oklahoma City bombing was an act or terrorism.

It also tended to mean an attack on civilian targets, but not always. The attack on the Pentagon on 9/11 was no less an act of terror than the attack on the World Trade Center.

Boston-Globe-front-pageDoes it matter how many die or how many are injured? Not really. If Al Qaeda tries to blow up the White House and the bomb’s a dud, or only injures one person, it was still a terrorist attack – just one that fizzled.

Of course, I’m concluding all of this without even defining what constitutes “terrorism.” So I turned to my friend, the Google, and it led me to the CIA’s 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.

Hmm.  Politically-motivated makes sense – though was the Kennedy assassination terrorism?  I don’t think so.  Let’s turn to the National Institute of Justice at the Department of Justice.  NIJ first quotes the US Code, 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.

Really?  What if I punched someone at the White House because I wanted them to speed up their work on immigration reform?  That would be the use of the force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.  But punching someone isn’t terrorism.

I wonder if the definition doesn’t need to include deadly violence, perhaps with the intent of inflicting mass deadly violence.  But that’s still not enough.  Was Sandy Hook terrorism?  I don’t think he had a political goal (I don’t think so), and I think that has to be part of the equation.  Doesn’t it?

Is it a terrorist attack if some nut blows up Congress simply because he’s a nut, and not because he’s trying to influence legislation – if he’s simply nutters, is it terrorism?

When abortion providers are shot by pro-life extremists, is that terrorism?  When eco-extremists burn down neighborhoods of new houses, is that terrorism?  (They’re called eco-terrorists, so maybe.)

When that crazy guy went to the religious right group with a gun, and a bunch of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, and shot a security guard in the arm, was that terrorism?  Would it have been terrorism had he killed everyone in the building?

I think what bothers me with how the word “terrorism” is used nowadays is that sometimes the term is awfully politically expedient – we call someone a terrorist, or an act terrorism, in order to influence the public, rather than simply because the act or the person met our definition.  Because we don’t really have a definition.

The ACLU weighs in with another definition, and the problem it poses:

Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act (Pub. L. No. 107-52) expanded the definition of terrorism to cover “”domestic,”” as opposed to international, terrorism.   A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act “”dangerous to human life”” that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to:  (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) 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.  Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States and if they do not, may be regarded as international terrorism….

The definition of domestic terrorism is broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations. Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island and WTO protesters and the Environmental Liberation Front have all recently engaged in activities that could subject them to being investigated as engaging in domestic terrorism.

One recent example is the Vieques Island protests, when many people, including several prominent Americans, participated in civil disobedience on a military installation where the United States government has been engaging in regular military exercises, which these protesters oppose.  The protesters illegally entered the military base and tried to obstruct the bombing exercises.  This conduct would fall within the definition of domestic terrorism because the protesters broke federal law by unlawfully entering the airbase and their acts were for the purpose of influencing a government policy by intimidation or coercion.  The act of trying to disrupt bombing exercises arguably created a danger to human life – their own and those of military personnel.

I’ve written this past week that the Boston Marathon bombings were terrorism.  But at the same time, I’ll be interested to hear why the bombers did it.  Then again, blowing up bombs at a civilian event, even if you’re just nuts, sure sounds like terrorism.

What’s your definition?  And do we even need a definition?  Though a lawyer would probably say, yes, since being designated a terrorist carries some legal import, in terms of how you’re handled and what you’re charged with.  I may need to seek out some experts and quiz them further on this one, as it’s a fascinating question, and I’m just not sure I’m liking the answers I’m getting.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | 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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