The recent use of the word “terrorist” by Sidebar author Muffle was a conscious decision but one that does not reflect the beliefs of the majority of Sidebar writers. I strongly disagree with its use based on the history of both the term and the indefensible tactics it describes. Muffle feels creative misuse can do more good than strict adherence to facts and definitions. In her own words:
I do not disagree that the formal definition of the term “terrorism” does not apply to the violent and deadly actions taken by Nikolaus Cruz in Florida this week. However, I made the choice to apply the term to Cruz in an effort to undermine the racially loaded use of the phrase in mainstream media. When an individual who commits a violent attack is of the Islamic faith or a person of color, many media sources impute the ideology of terrorism to their actions long before any true understanding of the individual’s motives or intentions can be obtained. This is not a new issue: see, e.g., discussions of this phenomenon in The Washington Post (2014); Slate (2016); and Yes! (2017).
Words are political. Terms like “terrorist” are used so readily with people of color because we have already separated them from ourselves and imagined them as a coherent, unified threat; an extreme and unrepentant danger to white American society. By choosing to apply this term to a violent and troubled white male (and alleged white supremacist) in the same way it has been misapplied or too quickly applied to attacks identical but for the color of the attacker’s skin, I choose to break down that artificial barrier between “other” demons and our own.
Despite Muffle’s intentions, the word “terrorism” means something. Definitions vary even between U.S. government agencies, and there is even less international agreement, but the Department of State considers terrorism to be any “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents,” as defined in Title 22 Chapter 38 U.S. Code § 2656f. That’s a lot to unpack, but there are three main parts here: the act is politically motivated, the actor is subnational, and the target is noncombatant. Subnational means that the actor is non-state; those committing these crimes are not affiliated with a recognized polity. They may aspire to form their own state, like Daesh or the IRA, or they may wish to advance political, religious, or ideological causes, but they are not an official state organ. That would simply be an act of war. Targeting noncombatants is considered a countervalue strategy and generally means that civilians, rather than military targets, are the victims (think Dresden or Hiroshima). In short, terrorism is a countervalue strategy undertaken by a non-state actor.
The lines can be blurry – they are sometimes fiercely debated – but these three requirements are usually sufficient. Terrorism is a common form of asymmetric warfare and historically overlaps with insurgency. One’s cause may or may not be just, but when the enemy cannot be defeated in the field, the only option remaining to those who would not submit is to attack the enemy’s resolve. Attacks against a military target however do not meet the definition of terrorism. Furthermore, when a state employs these tactics they are considered collateral damage or war crimes. This is how the U.S. lost Vietnam. It is also how the U.S. won its independence. It is how Afghanistan became known as the “Graveyard of Empires”. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Indeed, the distinction often comes down to who gets to define what is a legitimate military target. Is an enemy city? Is a foreign occupier? Is a criminal’s wedding? Less fuzzy are the lines around the last requirement: political motivation. Since conventional military victory is not an option, terrorism is primarily about intimidation, or sending a message, and lacks any real effectiveness if the actors fail to make clear their motivations and demands. Rather than hide their motives, radical organizations will claim ownership of acts that they had nothing to do with. This is the biggest factor that differentiates terrorism, both from other horrible domestic crimes and from the actions parties engaged military conflict.
The term is used and abused like a rented mule. Many are too eager to apply it every time a minority commits a crime. News outlets jump to stoke panic when, more often than not, a car crash is just that. Many are also afraid to use it when the perpetrator reminds them a bit too much of themselves. The KKK were a classic terrorist organization but we are still hesitant to apply that label. The 2015 Charleston SC church shooting was undoubtedly an act of terrorism, but was never widely described as such. Same story with the 2017 vehicle ramming attack in Charlottesville VA, because white nationalists like to think of these attacks as the exclusive purview of the unwashed immigrant hoards. It is true that minorities in America bear the brunt of our habitual mischaracterizations, but it effects us all. Security from terrorism is the altar upon which we are increasingly asked to sacrifice our constitutional freedoms. Repeated appeals to our baser natures are corrosive and can be self fulfilling, while relentlessly invoking a Phantom Menace can make us numb to other real and pressing issues.
Not much is known about the most recent mass shooting in Florida, but there may not be much to know. While it has been reported that the suspect had ties to a white supremacist group, there is nothing to suggest this motivated his actions. Rather, he displayed a laundry list of red flags that were reported but never acted upon. It seems likely that he, like so many perpetrators of cruel and senseless violence, was emotionally disturbed or mentally ill. Conflating mental health with terrorism risks derailing conversations that need to happen about both. Worse, it distracts from an overdue conversation about gun control. He was no fundamentalist, no freedom fighter, no revolutionary, just a bad guy with a gun. We desperately want to find meaning in tragedy but sometimes there is none and forcing it can encourage perpetrators by giving them exactly the kind of validation they sought.
Our political discourse has become increasingly fraught and a concerted effort has been made to water down, cheapen, or coopt powerful words and concepts. This is on full display when you look at our president taking legitimate criticisms and turning them back, indiscriminately, on various perceived enemies bereft of their original meaning. “Fake news” is a real thing and a problem that is only getting worse going into the next round of elections in the US and Europe. Accusations of “collusion” are thrown around like so much shit at anyone in range to obscure real corruption. And congresspeople are accused of treason (a capital offense) when they choose not to stand and applaud. Two wrongs do not make a right. Playing fast and loose with such charged terms abdicates the moral high ground and without that, who are we to demand a more responsible media and a more civil discourse? Any argument made dishonestly probably doesn’t hold up on its merits. If you think you are the exception because you are “right” then congratulations, you’re in good company.
Words are important, words have power, and anyone in a position to be heard has at least some obligation to use them responsibly. But misusing words, even with good intent, inevitably cheapens them. Attaching the word to actions such as those in Florida gives attackers more renown and infamy than they deserve; implying they had some overarching goal beyond inflicting cruel and senseless violence gives credit where none is due. Just as we owe it to minority groups not to “other ” them, we owe it to victims not to use their tragedy to right unrelated wrongs. In the end, if we are to have meaningful discussions on anything, these words are our currency, and debasing that currency is bad for everyone.
(Disclaimer – I may have mild face blindness because I have no idea whether this punk was white.)