Was Charles Manson a terrorist?

The word ‘terror’ is a very powerful one that tries to describe, insofar as language can, a very powerful emotion.  Terror is ultimate fear, a heightened sense of threat to oneself that can freeze one’s ability to react and cloud one’s ability to use reason to get out of a highly dangerous situation.  It is much worse than fear and is a state we would normally never want to see ourselves in.

People are terrified of all kinds of things: spiders, sharks, dogs, heights, flying…the list is a long one.  It is not useful to try to rationalise these fears away.  This is what often makes terror so paralysing.  We cannot convince ourselves that we are acting foolishly and should just ‘get over it’.  In fairness, much of what causes terror can it fact cause harm (a poisonous spider is, after all, a poisonous spider and Jaws taught all of us to be very afraid of swimming in the ocean).

Terror is of course the root of the word ‘terrorism’ – an event or act that causes terror, at least linguistically.  Yet we all know that trying to define terrorism is not easy.  Every organisation or government has its own take on what constitutes terrorism and how to deal with it through criminal codes or law enforcement/security intelligence/military action.  You would think that it is important to know what something is before you can take effective steps to either prevent it or deal with its after effects.

Alas we do not seem to be much closer to an agreed definition.  Complicating the challenge to states and organisations (say the UN) to reach consensus on what is and what is not terrorism is what the average person thinks.  There may very well be a ‘legal’ definition but that does not stop us from our conviction that ‘if it walks like a terrorist and looks like a terrorist it must be a terrorist’.  This fuzziness extends to the media.  Try this at home: read articles (on-line, in print) from a variety of news sources for a week and count the number of ways Islamic State members are described (terrorists, militants, fighters, combatants…) and you may be surprised by the inconsistency.   There are few who would not call IS a terrorist group and yet the inconsistency remains.  Clear as mud, right?

Then there is the case of Charles Manson.  The mass murderer and ‘cult leader’ died last week at the age of 83 in a California State prison. Few will mourn his passing.  It has been some time since the brutal crimes he carried out and/or inspired and for many his name and ?fame? will be unfamiliar.  Nevertheless what he and his followers did to innocent people rivalled the lowest depravity of terrorist groups like IS.

So Charles Manson was clearly a terrorist, yes?  Not so fast.  His acts of violence certainly met the ’cause terror’ part of what we mean by terrorism but fail on other counts.  Recall that for an act to be labelled terrorist in nature one crucial aspect is that it must be carried out for some political, religious or ideological reason.  This is not always easy to determine and there are constant debates on what constitutes ‘ideology’.  Can we pin this tag on Charles Manson?

It is hard to say.  Manson and his crew, the so-called ‘Manson Family’, were more of a cult than a terrorist cell.  Many have argued that cults and terrorist groups are one and the same but I beg to differ.  Yes, there are some things in common – a strong leader and a record of violence – but I would argue that while we normally see cult members as vulnerable souls ‘brainwashed’  into a movement terrorists are from a wide variety of backgrounds and choose to join groups.  Furthermore, it is not obvious what Charles Manson’s ‘ideology’ would have been. Yes he carved a swastika into his head (it had originally been a cross but he modified it) and he wanted to start an ‘apocalyptic race war’ but I am not aware of anything more sophisticated than that.  There is no doubt that the actor Sharon Tate and the other victims of the ‘Family’ were terrified as they were carved up but that does not mean that their murderers were terrorists.

In the end there has to be some form of agency and intent to terrorism in addition to underlying motive.  I do not think it makes sense to call a shark a terrorist since although the creature intends to take a bite out of you he does not do so to advance a political cause.  The same must be said of Charles Manson.  Whatever he said he was all about strikes me as a cover for wanting to kill people in horrific ways.  Sometimes a mass murderer is just a mass murderer.

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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