The recent atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino have ratcheted up our collective anxiety about international terrorism, and rightly so. But what exactly are we talking about when talk about terrorism? Much is made of President Obama’s supposed refusal to “call Islamic terrorism by its name.” The word terrorism itself has become generalized, its meaning expanded to encompass sets of beliefs rather than objective criteria.
In our haste to assign blame and defend ourselves, we risk confusing terrorism with simple crime, and that confusion itself poses risks. All terrorism is criminal, but only some crimes constitute terrorism. Especially when emotions and the pressure to react to them are high, we need to think clearly about the varieties of physical threat to our communities and ourselves, how terrorism differs from simple crime, and how we should deal with each of them.
At one end of the spectrum is Paris, where a group of organized, ideologically-motivated, and remotely-directed thugs engaged in random acts of lethal violence. That scenario is as concrete an example of terrorism as we’re likely to come up with. The ultimate template for this sort of thing is, of course, 9/11, and its identifying elements are (a) coordination among multiple participants, (b) external direction of the group, including but not limited to direction across national borders, (c) ideological (as contrasted with economic or personal) motivation, and (d) mass killings.
At the other end of the spectrum of public violence is Columbine, and Sandy Hook, and Aurora, and the Washington Navy Yard shootings, the shooting in Tuscon of Gabrielle Giffords, and for that matter the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, where deranged individuals, acting alone (though often abetted by the ready availability of automatic weapons), and motivated primarily by their own inner demons, wreak lethal havoc. Of the above indicia of terrorism, all but the use of extreme violence are missing in these cases. These are simple though abhorrent crimes, often committed by the certifiably insane and, in the modern world where instruments of mass death can be bought over the counter, mostly unpreventable.
Somewhere in the middle are the cases of the Boston bombers, the Planned Parenthood shooter, the Fort Hood shooter, the Oklahoma City bomber and, most recently, the San Bernardino shootings, where the actors may assume a quasi-military bent, may spout a religious phrase in the act of killing or later claim to be motivated by an ideology, but who acted without external direction and whose claims to ideological motivation may be so thoroughly mixed with their individual pathologies as to make them moot. Are they terrorists, or merely criminals? When someone is “inspired” by, but unknown to, a foreign organization like ISIS, does their crime become terrorism, any more than the violent act of a teenage boy who has been inspired by a video game?
Right-wing indignation over Obama’s hesitancy to label San Bernardino as an instance of Islamic terrorism is instructive. The terrorist label is useful to some because it simplifies complex facts and presumes an external enemy against whom war can at least theoretically be waged. It suggests the possibility of retribution, or of prevention through ever-greater infringements on our freedoms, rather than the moral slog required of us by the randomness of pathology and personal evil. It shifts the narrative away from the political and economic forces that sanctify gun possession, underfund the treatment of mental illness, support the medieval value systems of places like Saudi Arabia, or perpetuate the social conditions that give root to jihadist propaganda.
Obama’s opponents manage to sound indignant that the question of gun control has even been raised in the context of mass shootings, as though it represents an unwillingness to confront the threat of Islamic jihadism. But there is nothing mutually exclusive about wanting to defeat religious extremists and wanting to deprive them and other psychopaths of weaponry wherever possible.
Calling criminals terrorists elevates them above their station, gives them media time we would never confer on simple thugs, and relieves us of the obligation to address our own complicity in the violence we fear. The terrorist label too often legitimizes religious bigotry and lends an unwarranted dignity to simple, inexcusable crime. We should use it sparingly, and with a technical precision that reflects our seriousness in bringing actual terrorists to justice.