Who is, and who isn’t, a terrorist?

Picture of a youngish white man with a mostly bare, hairy chest, dressed in a furry headpiece which drapes partly over his chest, which has horns; he has tattoos on his arms, his face has US flag paint and he is carrying an American flag. Behind is a bearded, long-haired white man wearing a police body shield (whether legitimate or stolen is not clear).
One of the mob who invaded the US Capitol on 6th Jan. Taken from police PDF (see bottom of this entry).

Earlier this week a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters, whipped up by Trump’s baseless claims of ‘fraud’ in last November’s presidential election, invaded the houses of Congress in Washington, DC, with the apparent help of some of the police who should have been guarding the place, as the Congress met to certify the result of the election. They rampaged through the building, opening desks and strewing files over the floor, took pictures of each other in the offices and chambers, and removed artefacts; five people died, one a police officer, one of the mob who was shot, and three others from “medical emergencies”. In the aftermath social media was abuzz with complaints that the mob were not labelled as terrorists, a label that would have been applied had the rioters been Muslims, Black Lives Matter or anyone except White supremacists (along with much more stringent security and, very likely, lethal force); the White man who killed himself in a car bombing in Nashville over the Christmas period was also not referred to as such. This has been countered on Twitter by Muslims who suggested that expanding the use of ‘terror’ lingo might come back to haunt Muslims; Hoda Katebi suggested calling them “white militia” or “racist scum” instead.

While I agree with Hoda Katebi’s assessment, there is a simpler reason why the term ‘terrorist’ isn’t used for acts like this week’s invasion: they aren’t. The traditional definition of terrorism, as opposed to the official one that might be used in some government departments, is the use of spectacular acts of destruction or violence that are aimed at forcing political change to the benefit of the perpetrators by causing harm to members of the public and making the public fear for their lives. Such acts typically include bombings and massacres; they typically rule their populations by fear, running protection rackets on local businesses and murdering or maiming individuals presumed to be ‘traitors’ or ‘spies’ or those who publicly oppose their aims or methods.

Political actors have tried to stretch the definition to include activities which are merely disruptive, or intimidation which does not cause fear for one’s life or personal safety, or sabotage which is designed to avoid injury or loss of life to innocents. Such activities include the intimidation by animal rights extremists of people who breed animals for experimentation, which has included vandalism of vehicles and utilities but no personal harm, and the destruction of aircraft and other military equipment intended for use by an oppressive regime or in a civil war. Meanwhile, activists call for other things to be lumped in with ‘terrorism’ when, although an individual may be intimidated, the public are not. Domestic violence, for example, is not terrorism. A workplace or school bully is not a terrorist. Similarly, they demand that things are called what they think they are, regardless of facts; a certain type of feminist will demand that the word ‘rape’ is used for any age-of-consent breach, for example. There’s an old-fashioned word for harassing or intimidating people on the road and making them fear to travel, and that word is ‘banditry’. It’s not used enough, and there are plenty of bandits in US law enforcement.

The reason the Nashville suicide bomber was not called a terrorist in the media is because he wasn’t one; he had no political aims but just wanted to go out with a bang. In 2004 a man parked his car on a level crossing in southern England and sat there in front of an approaching high-speed train which derailed; the crash killed him, the train driver and five of the train’s passengers (including two children) and injured 66, twelve of them seriously. The man’s aim was not political; one matter of interest was that he was awaiting the results of an HIV test, but this was in fact negative. Both men were white.

‘Terrorism’ is being used as a pejorative term for any political activity that involves disruption or violence. Its use is being taken as a sign that something is being taken seriously; people are disappointed when it is not used, much as there is disappointment and distress when a war crime is deemed not to be genocide, as action is not mandated at UN level and penalties are lighter. The problem is that too much that people call terrorism, or insist be called that, really has little in common with the real thing and if we expand the definition of terrorism, it will be used against people who are already liable to be accused of condoning terrorism, or being “unindicted co-conspirators”, or being somehow “linked to terror” because of a tenuous personal connection or because of having a similar or distantly related ideology with an actual terrorist group that they have nothing to do with (as organisations and public figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood commonly experience, not only from American pundits and politicians but from the authorities in some Muslim countries).

It’s not right or just that anyone be accused of terrorism because of such associations, or for illegal acts such as sabotage or computer hacking that are not designed to cause death or injury to innocents but perhaps even to prevent it. And if we do not want this done to our own people, to our personalities, activists and imams, we shouldn’t be clamouring for things we don’t like to be called terrorism when they are not or people who are hostile to us to be called terrorists when they are not, or at least are guilty of other things. There were many crimes committed by the people who invaded Congress; it was at least a coup attempt or a threat to the constitutional order from people who did not like the result of an election. However, not every politically motivated crime is an act of terrorism.

Image source: District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, via Wikimedia.

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