When to call an act of mass violence terrorism

Here we are, the day after yet another mass shooting in the US, this one at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during a naming ceremony for a child.  A 46-year old named Robert Bowers sprayed bullets inside the faith centre, killing 11 and wounding 6, including 4 police officers who responded to the active shooter incident.  Bowers was shot and injured as well.  He thus survived his own attack where many others didn’t. I am of two minds on this: too bad he didn’t die so that we would have one less violent person to deal with, but the fact that he is alive means we may learn more about why he did what he did (we have some clues, which I will take up below).

I have no intention of wading into the gun debate because a) as a Canadian it is none of my business and b) it is pointless.  That the US President thought it ok to merely suggest that had an armed guard been present fewer worshipers would have died is nothing less than disgusting.  What kind of a society thinks that having guns on site at places of prayer is a better solution than limiting those guns in the first place?  The US of course.  Enough said.

What, then, to make of this bloody attack?  Was it an act of terrorism?  For some it is, in keeping with the common notion that any act that terrorises or seeks to terrorise is terrorism.  I have written about this a lot, as recently as this week with respect to the pipe bombs (as an aside, is it not telling that this other story got so much attention but disappeared as soon as the synagogue massacre happened?), so I will not repeat those arguments here.

From other perspectives (legal, definitional, etc.) it is far from clear that the shootings constitute terrorism.  For the sake of brevity I will focus on two countries, Canada and the US, to see how complicated this can be.  In my country, terrorist activity is a serious act of violence committed for ideological, political or religious reasons.  In the US it is “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  

Where then does the Pittsburgh shooting fall?  Is anyone being ‘coerced or intimidated’?

As I noted above, given that the shooter is still among us we may learn more about his motivation. We already have some clues thanks to his postings on the social media app Gab (full disclosure: I had no idea what Gab was and learned it is a ‘free speech’ haven for those kicked off platforms such as Twitter on account of their vile and hateful views).  Bowers is an anti-Semitic creep and conspiracy theorist.  Two hours before his rampage he posted this: “”HIAS (NB Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit that helps Jewish refugees relocate to the US) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  Based on that alone we can conclude he hates Jews.

But is it enough to make this a terrorist attack?  Is it a ‘political or social objective”?  Maybe.  In Canada his act would qualify at a minimum as a hate crime, analogous to the massacre at a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 (the perpetrator of that act has NOT been charged with terrorism to the best of my knowledge).  The US has already filed hate crime charges against Bowers.  In the US I am not as qualified to comment and will leave the debate to those who know that country better than I do.

When it comes to terrorism it is telling that Americans have skewed the dialogue towards Islamist extremism since 9/11 – no surprise there.  And yet the phenomenon of what they call ‘domestic terrorism’ (a bad term to my mind: what is important is the underlying ideology, not where it happens) has been largely marginalised.  This is indeed unfortunate as there are, according to many including the Southern Poverty Law Center, hundreds of right wing, neo-Nazi, Islamophobic, sovereign citizen and hate groups and individuals in the US which have carried out heinous acts of violence.  To repeat: if the violence is motivated by ideology it should be labelled terrorism (I realise that defining ‘ideology’ is a challenge as well).

In the end, Bowers will get a very, very long prison sentence (he will not get executed as Pennsylvania’s governor suspended the death penalty in 2015).  I am not so sure that agreeing to call it terrorism, or a hate crime, or a (another!) mass shooting really matters. What really matters is that 11 people are dead and 11 families are grieving.  They deserve our support at this time.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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