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​What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism

Terrorism is a word like "pornography": blurry at the boundaries, but something everyone is sure they will recognize when they see it.

Photo via Flickr user Peter Stevens

The night after the San Bernardino massacre, some loony emailed in a gun shooting threat against my city's middle schools. For those of you keeping track at home, that's the People's Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the left-leaning, college-heavy enclaves in the NPR archipelago. Each of our middle schools is housed in a K-8 school building, one of which is across the street from me. Which means that four police cars and three news trucks were parked across from my house all day last Thursday. As is often standard practice in larger cities, everyone from toddlers to new teenagers to teachers had to pass through a security check before taking jackets and backpacks inside.


Welcome to 21st century America, where we all know the sickening script—and where my town is hardly exceptional. At least one school in a neighboring city yielded a similar threat. So I can only assume that across the country, officials at schools, malls, colleges, clinics, government buildings, and God only knows what else were assessing incoming threats as well.

But was it terrorism?

I have a low resting body temperature, both physically and emotionally, so I assumed it was some kid who was having a bad week. But I'm an outlier. Around here—and, I imagine, wherever else threats were disclosed—most parents I knew were, at a minimum, unnerved, and at a maximum, virtually immobilized by fear and anxiety. Some kept their kids home from school; others sent the kids in but kept hitting refresh on a local news site just in case.

In so many words: They were terrified, which may well be what was intended. But does that make it terrorism?

When I went looking for a nice clear definition of the word, I found that—as with so many large abstract categories—it doesn't really exist. Oh, every expert I spoke with knew exactly what it meant. But no two agreed precisely with one another. Terrorism turns out to be a big, baggy word that you can stuff a lot of things into, a word that, like "pornography," is blurry at the boundaries--but that everyone is sure they will recognize when they see it.

There is some common ground. Contemporary terrorism means, at the very least, an attack on civilians designed to send an intimidating political message to a community beyond the victims themselves. The terrorism that much of the world is now focused on—radical, violent Islamists—fits in a tradition that goes back about 150 years to the bomb-throwing anarchists who assassinated the Czar in Russia and President William McKinley in the US. The Paris attacks, the San Bernardino shootings, the Madrid train bombings, the London subway bombings, and of course, 9/11: Our minds now quickly toss incidents like these—spectacular, random, unexpected and yet dreaded—into the bucket we call "terrorism."


But the category encompasses far more than radical Islamists. Just within recent memory, it includes the Basque separatists bombing across Spain, the IRA bombing of London parks, pubs, and department stores, the slaughter at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Weathermen, and more. The word descends from the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, when the Jacobins deliberately terrified (and executed) opponents and civilians to keep counterrevolutionaries and other "enemies of the state" at bay. The political scientists don't use it to talk about what a government does any more, though; they reserve it for "nonstate actors," paramilitaries, rogue sects, and loners inspired by ideology.

So what about the indie shooters, who aren't trying to connect up with a group and aren't claimed by one? Yep, that can still be terrorism. Most experts also agree that the word takes in attacks on a Planned Parenthood clinic or assassinations of gynecologists on behalf of extremist religious beliefs about abortion and contraception. When a gunman shot up two Brookline, Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood clinics in 1994, killing two and wounding five, the state's Republican Governor Bill Weld and the then-US President Bill Clinton both quickly condemned it as terrorism, plain and simple. And before San Bernardino wiped what came before out of our minds, Colorado's Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Springs' Republican Mayor John Suthers both suggested that the attack on Planned Parenthood at the tail-end of November sure smelled like terrorism, too. (And sure enough, that shooter has since said he's a "warrior for the babies.") And it includes someone who shoots up an iconic black church's prayer group or a Sikh temple on behalf of a racist ideology, or who bombs two abortion clinics, a lesbian bar, and the Atlanta Olympics to clarify his hatred of cosmopolitan modernity.


Of course, terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. It's a dismissive and accusatory word, a term applied when you despise both the means and the reasoning of this political "speech." In their own minds, these folks are freedom fighters, or the revolutionary vanguard, or martyrs for God, or warriors rescuing babies from heartless murderers. As Arie Perliger, a West Point political science professor who directs terrorism studies there, explains, "Terrorists will rarely use it. They'll call themselves the Irish Republican Army, or the Red Army Faction," or the Islamic State. "They prefer a military identity to a terrorist identity." That's true today for some of the Christian extremist groups, like the Army of God. They are deep in an ideological war, and only one side can win.

Which brings us to the more difficult group to parse. How do we categorize the misogynist shooters at UC Santa Barbara or Umpqua Community College in Oregon or Dawson College in Montreal, who kill because they are outraged that women won't date them? Is that terrorism against an entire gender, committed by someone spouting a dangerous ideology of aggrieved superiority? What about online communities seething with resentment against feminism, whose true believers threaten rape, beheading, and shooting so persistently and credibly that terrified women have to cancel public appearances or flee their homes, forcing other women to silence themselves lest they, too, be made to fear for their lives?


And here come some still harder ones: How do we talk about the school shootings, the sociopathic adolescents who shot up Columbine, the unhinged man shooting up a grade school in Newtown? What about the movie theater shootings, when an angry man shoots up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado or Lafayette, Louisiana to gain a place in the annals of infamy, to reject a social order based on a mutual respect that shades into mutual indifference, to make us see him instead of ignoring him, at long last? They're not explicitly political. They're not tied to a group ideology, even loosely. But they're most certainly spreading terror.

Profit and politics, as everyone from Tammany Hall to Wall Street knows, are not so far apart.

The political scientists would say they're just troublemakers, not true "terrorists," since the latter are trying to influence public attitudes and policies. But I'm not the only one for whom all these shootings and bombings are starting to blur together, never mind the motive. The screaming tabloid New York Daily News published an in-your-face front page calling them all terrorists—not just the San Bernardino killers, but also the shooter at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, the white-supremacist shooter at the Charleston church, the Newtown school shooter, the Aurora movie theater shooter—along with Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, the front man for the gun manufacturers who get an extra special payday every time a mass shooting spurs more gun sales. On the other end of the intellectual spectrum, the New York Times said essentially the same thing with a once-in-a-century editorial published on its own front page, which read, "Let's be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism."


God knows these killers are, indeed, influencing behavior and policy: gun sales spike after each publicized mass murder when the nation goes into a spasm of considering robust gun control. They are changing our polity and our politics both. And they're not so separate: terrorists traffic in drugs and guns, while criminals and gangsters become terrorists. Profit and politics, as everyone from Tammany Hall to Wall Street knows, are not so far apart.

Jack Levin agrees. He's a criminologist and sociologist, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University, and an expert on murder, mass murder, hate crimes, serial killing, and other hideous acts that few of us can bear to think about for very long. Terror, as he sees it, is a tactic. It can be used by criminal gangs to intimidate for profit, or by seething loners seeking infamous celebrity, or ideological fanatics intent on establishing the rule of God (or Mao) on earth.

Remember the Beltway snipers, the two men who drove around shooting people at random from a blue Chevrolet Caprice? Their motive, according to Levin, was to terrify the region so as to coerce authorities into shelling out $10 million to make them go away. He knows it drives political scientists crazy—they want to keep the word assigned to politics—but he calls that terrorism, too. Another security expert told me, with tongue only partly in cheek, "Crime is perpetrated by people like us. Terrorism is carried out by the scary Other," the brown and foreign and people who worship in a different way. Laura Beth Nielsen, a Northwestern University professor of sociology and the law, concurs, suggesting the word's use has become a shorthand for those whose race and religion differs from that of most Americans. But here's something you might not expect: Levin argues that we're seeing less terrorism and fewer mass killings today than there were in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, what's spread, he says, is the wall-to-wall, dawn-to-dawn media coverage that reports campus threats even when there's no actual threat, just someone who panicked and called campus security. It hasn't gotten worse, he argues—it's just gotten better media.


So does it matter whether we call a particular event "social terrorism" or "spree killing" or something completely different? In the law, it does. Calling it "terrorism" makes it a federal crime, which gets the FBI and US Attorneys involved, boosting the possible punishments; it makes citizens more willing to sacrifice liberties for security in everything from airport lines (are you old enough remember when you could just walk onto a plane?) to the privacy of your phone calls, location, and bank transactions. And it matters to those so designated and the people affiliated with some of their professed beliefs—cf: Operation Rescue –because it imposes a different frame on how we think about their beliefs and actions, reducing public tolerance for what they're doing.

Perliger thinks it's important to keep a clear distinction between political terrorism and all the rest. He argues that since those different kinds of violence come from different motives and causes and have different implications, we need to parse the differences carefully so as to know how to prevent it. He maintains that lumping together the San Bernardino shootings and the Aurora movie massacre and individual men who terrorize their wives and children and everything else makes it harder to think about how effectively to counteract and prevent future incidents.

"Terrorism is psychological warfare. They want to change the psychology of your society."—Arie Perliger


Levin snorts (rhetorically speaking) at the desire to keep the definition political. But I say, fine. Let them use it their way. We'll use it our way. We know that all of them are terrifying us, subway bombers, school shooters, and all the rest—and not merely because, as the Onion ironically "reports," CNN executives hold a meeting each morning to decide what viewers should panic about the rest of the day. Unfortunately, all that coverage of mass shootings breeds copycats—of all kinds of terrorism, political and apolitical alike.

But many of these experts agree on one thing: whatever we call it, we need to get a new perspective on these violence events. Levin's view comes from his sense that such mass murders have actually dropped since the heyday of airline hijackings and bombings in the 1970s. Today, we're more likely to be crushed to death by furniture than attacked by a terrorist, however defined.

Perliger's perspective comes from his childhood in Israel. He urges Americans to "just see it as part of reality, like traffic accidents and any kind of ordinary risk." You develop instincts, he says, that are comparable to slowing down at busy intersections, like watching out for stray bags and packages. "Everyone knows that from being a child."

But what's more important, Perliger says, is to remember that "Terrorism is psychological warfare. They want to change the psychology of your society." If we cower under the bed, inviting the government to listen in on all our phone calls, search laptops at the border, and follow GPS devices without warrants, they will have succeeded. Or as he puts it, "Resilient societies can adapt to these kinds of events without changing their nature, norms, values, or beliefs."

Terrorism, in other words, doesn't have to leave you terrified.

E.J. Graff is managing editor of The Monkey Cage at the Washington Post, and a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Follow her on Twitter.