Violence and Terrorism Are Not the Same

We continue to hear noises about how many recent violent attacks are not being labeled as terrorism, and that this failure to label them as such is (always or usually) because of racism.

I think this jump is often unwarranted, and that there’s a simple, useful distinction that can be used to determine whether or not a given attack is terrorism.

Definitions and examples

Let’s start with a definition of terrorism from Google.


Terrorism

/ˈterəˌrizəm/

noun
The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

The “in pursuit of political aims” is key here, and I think it should be expanded to include some measure of scale. If I were to define terrorism I’d add some sort of component of unity in action, i.e., there should be some measure of organization and coordination taking place, either in terms of the message or the attacks.

This is to say that people who are acting alone—as part of their own personal political belief and not part of some movement external to them—should not be in my mind considered terrorism.

That’s just violence.

Here are some examples that call out the distinction:

  • Timmothy McVeigh acted alone, but was tapping into a larger militia-based message of anti-government. I’d call that terrorism.
  • School shootings are horrific, and they tend to be committed by white people. They produce much the same effects as terrorism, but they’re not terrorism at all in my mind. It’s violence. Again, the causes are school bullying, bad parenting, mental health issues, and general teenage angst. That’s violence, not terrorism.
  • Many years ago two black men went on a sniping rampage around D.C., killing around 20 people. The leader, Muhammed, was part of the nation of Islam, but they were also disturbed and didn’t appear to be tied to any particular group or cause. I would call that violence, not terrorism. Maybe part of his hatred came from his interpretation of Islam. Maybe he was thinking about that while he did the acts. Doesn’t matter. He was not acting as part of any campaign, so he was just a disturbed guy doing bad things. Violence, not terrorism.
  • The white guy who killed a bunch of people in a black church I wouldn’t call a terrorist either because he acted alone and wasn’t attaching his actions to any sort of joint cause. He did tie his actions to a political viewpoint (racism), but it wasn’t linked to anything larger than him and his ideas. There was no group, no campaign, and no organization. That makes it violence and not terrorism to me.
  • The numerous attacks in France, 9/11, and the London subway bombings are all clear terror according to this definition. They are because they’re part of a single narrative of Islam vs. the west, and they represent a joint fabric of ideas that are actively encouraging more of the same. The idea is that there should be a global Caliphate that institutes Sharia and subjugates or murders those who don’t conform, and the leaders of this movement are asking followers to hurt people. So when people do, and give that as a reason, that’s terrorism.
  • Similar to Islamic terror, the IRA was clearly terrorism because it was unified behind a single group and a movement that encouraged the same kind of violence in support of that set of ideas.
  • If a devout Muslim guy gets depressed about a divorce and kills some people at work while screaming, “You helped her cheat on me!”, that’s not terrorism. That’s violence.
  • If we start seeing a Neo-nazi movement that attacks minorities, and has some sort of unified message and campaign, like, “Kill all the immigrants.”, and some white kid—even by himself with no help from others—mentions that campaign while he hurts someone, that’s terrorism.

To me, the difference in all these cases is the tie (or not) to an existing and organized campaign of ideas.

Summary

  1. Violence and terrorism have similar destructive force.
  2. Terrorism, however, is violence that’s explicitly tied to an active, unified political campaign or organization.
  3. If you hurt people—no matter your race or religion—and your actions were not tied to any such campaign, then you’ve committed violence, not terrorism.

Notes

  1. Violence can often cause just as much or more harm than terrorism. Mental health, for example, is arguably causing way more bloodshed than terror. So it’s not a matter of frequency or scale of harm done; it’s about ties to unified beliefs and an active campaign to harm others in their name.
  2. Racism is obviously real, and it can clearly lead to failure to see activities performed by in-groups to be judged less harshly than those of out-groups (whatever the perspective is). The point here is that you have to start with clean definitions before you can look for this type of bias.
  3. It’s quite possible to interpret terrorism more loosely using its tie to politics, meaning trying to send a message or influence something. My issue with that sort of broad scope is that it would include just about every type of violence. Disgruntled office workers, divorces gone wrong, etc. There are many cases where a perpetrator might be trying to make a larger point through their actions, and could therefore be interpreted as terrorism. I don’t think that’s useful because it brings too many things inside the circle.

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