Words matter, as we have all come to learn. Words like “racism” and “fascism” are constantly misused, rendering their true meanings all but worthless. Falling victim to this modern tendency to play fast and loose with original definitions are the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.”
Sadly, it has become almost standard practice to use these terms as a reflection of one’s political views. Whether or not some individual or group is labeled terrorist now depends, almost entirely, on one’s feelings towards the perpetrators of an act of violence.
Several recent events in the United States have been described as terrorism by one or other side of the political scale. In reality, all but one of those horrific crimes was falsely defined. To cut through the fog of weaponized semantics, we must understand the very purpose of terrorism and recognize the distinction between it and crimes committed for other reasons.
When Is a Terrorist Not a Terrorist?
These particular labels – terrorist and terrorism – demand very specific conditions to be accurate descriptors, and they have everything to do with motive. The nature of the act itself – regardless of how many victims it claims – is almost irrelevant. Indeed, no-one even has to die for an attack to be correctly defined as terrorism. Antifa has yet to be found responsible for a single death, yet it is a terrorist organization. Using violence, intimidation, obstruction of free speech, and destruction of property, it aims to force political change upon a largely unsupportive nation.
Although government entities and various private institutions have formulated differing definitions of these terms, there is one common thread that separates acts of terrorism from all other violence. The motive must be to terrorize or coerce a population or one distinct, targeted section of the populace into affecting political change.
National governments have, for decades (or longer), branded enemies of the state terrorists as a way to portray them as ‘the bad guys.’ In some instances, the label was accurate – in others, not so much. The British government called the Irish Republican Army (IRA) a terrorist organization. The definition was, in this case, correctly used. The IRA was pursuing a specific agenda; the unification of the political entity known as Northern Ireland with its neighbor, the Republic of Ireland.
To achieve this, the IRA launched a decades-long campaign of terrorism. Using guns and bombs, it aimed to terrorize both the British public and government into giving Northern Ireland its independence from the United Kingdom, thereby facilitating its unification with Ireland.
Another common thread within all definitions of terrorism is that violence is committed against the civilian population. One could not define as terrorists a group that wages war exclusively against military and government targets.
During the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s, the country of Yugoslavia fractured when Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina proclaimed independence. Serbia, which dominated the former Soviet satellite, promptly launched a military invasion of all three states. The newly-created governments of these three breakaway countries defended themselves, as did the civilian populations. All were branded terrorists by the Yugoslavian government. This was, quite simply, a way to delegitimise their quest for independence. Slovenes, Croats, and Bosniaks were not embarking upon campaigns of terror, but fighting defensive wars against the Serbian invaders.
When Republican Congressman Steve Scalise was severely wounded by a gunman intent on killing him and several other of his Republican colleagues, many people on the right quickly branded the shooter a terrorist. They were wrong. Although the line seems fine, this act should be defined differently. It was an act of political violence.
The shooter was not attempting to terrorize any one group of people into changing a political policy; he was trying to kill those who supported a political agenda with which he disagreed. The motive behind the attack was not political change, but the murder of political enemies. The difference may seem subtle, but it is there.
Many people on the left were quick to call Stephen Paddock, the man who shot and killed more than 50 people at a Las Vegas concert a terrorist. Those same people also consider Timothy McVeigh, Dylan Roof, and Alex Fields terrorists. In Pollack’s case, the label is entirely inappropriate. In the other cases, it is also wrong, if less obviously so.
Although the motive behind the Las Vegas massacre may still be unknown, there is no indication that Pollack was attempting to affect any political change through terror. He aimed to kill, not to terrorize; his motive? Anger, perhaps, a desire for revenge against the city in which he may have lost a substantial amount of money, possibly. Whatever his reason, there is no indication that it was terrorist in nature.
Dodging the Label
As New Yorker contributor Masha Gessen wrote in October, “The fact that people are terrorized doesn’t necessarily mean that an act of terror has been committed.” He is correct. If we are to use the word ‘terrorism’ to describe every incident in which people are terrorized, then we must call every homicide an act of terror and every killer a terrorist.
Timothy McVeigh, also, was no terrorist. Like Scalise’s would-be murderer, he committed an act of political violence. He lashed out against a government he saw as oppressive. Although his bombing of the FBI building in Oklahoma City cannot rationally be defended, it was not an act of terrorism. McVeigh was not attempting to inspire political change through terrorism; he was attempting to kill employees of a federal government he feared and despised.
Neither was Dylan Roof a terrorist. Here, again, the perpetrator was not acting on a motive of terrorizing civilians into forcing political change. He killed out of racial hatred, exaggerated by mental instability. His protestations that he intended to start a race war were little more than a sociopathic attempt to legitimize a horrendous act of racial intolerance, carried to the extreme of mass murder.
To describe Roof as a terrorist is to give his terrible act a veneer or purpose and legitimacy it surely does not deserve. The same can be said of Stephen Paddock or Alex Field.
Field ran down and killed counter-protester Heather Heyer during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There is no question that this was an act of political violence. It was not, however, part of a planned act of coercion through terror. It was reactionary, in that it was an act of violence carried out in response to the display of political opposition to the killer’s own beliefs. No less heinous in its intent and result, but not terroristic.
Political Motives Hide Real Dangers
Why, then, do leftists rush to brand such individuals terrorists, even as they display a reluctance to recognize real acts of terrorism, such as the recent vehicle attack in Manhattan? It is because they have found what they believe is an efficient way of defining their political opponents as evil – as ‘the bad guys’ and as a constant potential danger to society. In the narrow and highly discriminatory world-view of the modern progressive, a terrorist is any white man who commits an act of violence against any group of civilians.
Some on the right are guilty of the same level of blinkered reasoning. Steve Scalise’s shooter was quickly described as a terrorist, even though he wasnot. The label, in this case, was inspired by political bias.
The practice of using labels as political weapons has become far too prevalent in modern America. Where once, most people would have been startled and disturbed to discover a ‘racist’ among them, they now shrug, realizing the accusation is probably false; made by some social justice warrior with no sense of humor. The real racists among us become harder to find. We should take care to refrain from using the word ‘terrorist’ too readily, lest we begin to find it impossible to detect those for whom the word is truly appropriate.