“The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart has called the Charleston shooting which murdered nine worshippers terrorism. It certainly was a hate crime, but was it terrorism? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It all depends on what the definition of terrorism is, and that is something surprisingly unresolved after decades of fighting terrorism. In 1988, Western countries used more than 100 different definitions of terrorism; 25 years later, they used 250 different definitions. Today, there are even more. The international community and the United Nations have not agreed on a single definition. President Barack Obama, for his part, has simply sidestepped the issue. His 2011 “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” avoids defining terrorism, even as it defined other terms such as “affiliates” and “adherents.”
University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman (who also happens to be a leading scholar of the Islamic Revolution) penned a thought-provoking op-ed along with Duke University analyst David Schanzer in the New York Times earlier this week. They argued that fear of Islamist terrorism against the United States homeland is overblown, and that the numbers suggest a far greater threat from “right-wing” terrorism:
The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police. In a survey we conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum last year of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction; 39 percent listed extremism connected with Al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations. And only 3 percent identified the threat from Muslim extremists as severe, compared with 7 percent for anti-government and other forms of extremism….
Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years. In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012.
Now, I happen to disagree with Kurzman and Schanzer in downplaying the threat of Islamist terrorism, and much hinges on definitions. A right-wing militiaman (or a left-wing activist, for that matter) shooting at a policeman or police station) isn’t seeking murder and mayhem on the same scale as detonating a car bomb in Times Square or blowing up an airliner over Detroit. Not every shooting is a terrorist attack, just like not every incident of domestic violence is an honor killing. That doesn’t make the crime or the attack any less noxious, but the terrorism label is a powerful thing, and applying its use everywhere and to everything as increasingly happens simply erodes its meaning.
Either way, it’s long past time to standardize the definition of terror in U.S. policy circles. In 1975, the British journalist and writer Gerald Seymour coined the phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” in his novel Harry’s Game, set during the height of the British conflict with the Irish Republican Army. In the decades since, it has become the catch phrase for proponents of moral equivalence. Many countries to which the United States gives counterterrorism assistance—Turkey, for example—have an à la carte approach to terrorism, where they will condemn it when it occurs in their own country, but endorse and even support it when it targets Syrians and Israelis. That sort of nonsense should never be tolerated.
If policymakers adopted a short, clear, and concise definition of terrorism, for example, “The deliberate hijacking, kidnapping, or murdering of civilians for political gain,” and insisted anyone receiving U.S. assistance sign onto that definition as a prerequisite, the fight against terrorism could be advanced, and the notion of excusing or even financing terrorism out of sympathy to its cause (think Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Qatar) could be confronted.
When it comes to domestic terrorism, the same definition might and should apply. Perhaps the church shooting by an avowed racist should equate to terrorism. The goal was not simply murder, but to terrorize a community. But it is unclear whether the shooter had a political agenda he really wanted to advance, or whether he was simply motivated by his own brainwashing into an ideology of hate. It’s understandable to say, “Who cares?” After all, it’s a tragedy, and too many lives were cut short. The danger is, however, simply leaving such issues of domestic terrorism undefined also makes it easier to hijack them for political purposes on either side of the political spectrum. Think the silly attacks on conservatives in the wake of the Gabby Giffords shooting, when the shooter was suffering from mental illness and not motivated by politics. Or how some parsed Norwegian mass murder Anders Breivik’s writing to castigate selectively some of those whom he had read, but did not apply the same standard to those whom Usama Bin Laden had in his library.
Simply put, whether Islamist terrorism, right wing terrorism, or left wing terrorism is the paramount threat (or any terrorism regardless of its political flavor), it’s crucial to define the target of the fight. With all due respect to the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we can’t kick the can down the road on an issue of growing importance and just say, “We know it when we see it.”