The Michigan School Shooting Was Terrifying. But Was It Terrorism?

One expert told VICE that laying charges in a case like this shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of terrorism.”
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, CA
A memorial outside of Oxford High School continues to grow on December 03 2021 in Oxford, Michigan.
A memorial outside of Oxford High School continues to grow on December 03 2021 in Oxford, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There’s no doubt that what happened in the halls of Michigan’s Oxford High School last week was terrifying.

Authorities allege Ethan Crumbley, 15, exited a bathroom in the school just before 1 p.m. on Nov. 30 and pulled out a handgun his parents reportedly got him as a Christmas present. He began firing methodically at students in a hallway. In the end, four were killed: Tate Myre, 16; Hana St. Juliana, 14; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; and Justin Shilling, 17. And several more were injured.

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Just hours before, his parents had been called in to the school after a teacher found a drawing Ethan had made of a figure shooting people with the words “the thoughts won't stop, help me" and “blood everywhere.” He was allowed to return to class after that meeting. The fifteen-year-old was later arrested at the shooting scene and has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and terrorism. 

That final charge is unusual: It’s the first time terror charges have been brought against an alleged school shooter, despite the hundreds of students shot and killed in the U.S. over the last few decades. 

During a news conference, Oakland County District Prosecutor Karen McDonald said that she filed the terrorism counts so that the suspect’s charges would represent not just those he allegedly wounded and killed but also those who were traumatized by his actions. She was fully aware this is not “a typical charge.”

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Jennifer and James Crumbley who have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. Photo via screenshot.

“What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks?” McDonald said at a news conference last week. “What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever set foot back in that school? Those are victims too, and so are their families, and so is the community. And the charge of terrorism reflects that.”

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“I wanted to make sure all of the victims were represented in the charges that we filed against this individual," McDonald told CNN later on. "If that's not terrorism, I don't know what is."

McDonald’s office did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment for further clarification on why the charges were laid.

Legal experts are conflicted on whether the charges should have been filed at all, let alone whether they will stand up in court. 

Adam Lankford, a professor in criminology at the University of Alabama, told VICE News this is a “fundamental misunderstanding of terrorism” and that if a student defined it as such on an exam, they’d receive a failing grade.

“She's looking at the effects of the attack on the community, on the students at the school, which is just not how we define terrorism,” said Lankford.

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations describes terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and 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,” which is as close to an accepted definition as you can find. There is no federal statute on terrorism. 

However, Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor at the State University of New York who researches school shootings, said she’s been expecting someone to lay charges like this for a while. Schildkraut is from Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a high-profile school shooting in 2018, and she’s seen the impact it had on the community. She described the shooting like an earthquake that can have effects far from its epicentre.

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“What people often forget about is the community impact when tragedy like this happens,” said Schildkraut. “It doesn't just happen in the building … it happens to the whole community.

Others have pointed out that this may be a new way of looking at gun violence from a legal prospective.

Both the legal definition and the etymology of terrorism are critical to the issue. 

Schildkraut points out that the “root of the term terrorism is terror.”

"We have a category of non–ideologically motivated shooting, in that they're not being conducted for the same rationale, which in support of a set of beliefs, but that doesn't mean they're not terrorists terrorizing an entire community,” said Schildkraut.

While terrorism has a broader meaning that most people recognize—violence that is used to further an ideology—legally it’s treated differently from place to place.   

“The Department of Defense, the U.S. Code, and the 2002 Homeland Security Act all define terrorism slightly differently,” said Lankford. “Terrorism scholars recognize that the confusion gets even more extensive if you look internationally. It's been said that there are 100 different definitions of terrorism around the world. There's no doubt that, depending on what definition you use, who qualifies will differ.”

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In Michigan, under the state 2002 terrorism act, the crime is defined as “an act that is intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence or affect the conduct of government or a unit of government through intimidation or coercion,” which makes it broader than most. Terror charges were brought against several men connected to the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, although most of those charges were dropped. 

Terrorism charges are exceedingly rare in the U.S. Tim McVeigh, arguably the most infamous domestic terrorist in American history, never faced terror charges for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. President Joe Biden called the Jan. 6 rioters “domestic terrorists,” but none have been charged with terrorism. 

Lankford said he doesn't expect the terror charges to stick in the Michigan school shooting. Regardless of everything, however, he's adamant that this is a tragedy no matter what charges are laid.   

"If I was a prosecutor, I would want to emphasize that not applying the label of terrorism to a tragedy doesn't diminish the horror of the tragedy,” said Lankford. “It frankly comes across as a little bit of pandering just to tell people that this is terrorism because they feel scared."

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