Defining terrorism – again

It seems that whenever a serious act of violence happens in the West the debate on whether such act is terrorism begins.  The Colorado Springs shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic – terrorism or just a mentally disturbed recluse acting violently?  The San Bernardino attack – terrorism or workplace violence?  The problem with these events in the US at least is that mass shootings are so frequent that we are still arguing about one when the next one occurs (NB I was fascinated to hear President Obama label the Fort Hood incident of 2009 a terrorist attack in his speech last Sunday: up until then it was called a workplace violence incident).  And yet we leap to the terrorism conclusion often before the facts are in.

A recent op-ed piece in the Jordan Times (see it here) reminds us that we still cannot agree on what terrorism is and what it isn’t.  On top of disagreeing on the parameters, the term is so emotionally charged that it might forever preclude a common definition.  I can understand that.

What I can’t understand, however, is the obvious (well, obvious to me) misuse of the term for events that are tragic in themselves but cannot be called terrorism, regardless of the definition you use.  Two recent statements on terrorism have led me to address the issue of “is it or isn’t it?”  yet again.

While listening to CBC’s As It Happens last night, I heard an interview with the editor of the New York Daily News in which the head of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, was called a “terrorist” for his organisation’s promotion of gun culture and belief that the only solution to gun death is to have more guns (how can anyone not see the utter idiocy of this?  But that requires a blog on its own).

Look, Mr. Lapierre is truly a loathsome, reptilian character but he is not a “terrorist”.  Yes, his views have contributed to more deaths, but the vast majority of those lives were not lost in acts of terrorism.

The second example came in the form of an article in the Ottawa Citizen in which DND employee Jesse MacLean wrote that the Dec 6, 1999 mass shootings at the Ecole Polytechnique by Marc Lepine was “one of the worst terrorist attacks Canada has ever endured” (read it here).  MacLean maintains that Lepine’s hatred for women constitutes terrorism.

Sorry, Mr, MacLean, but you are wrong.  The shootings were catastrophic and should have led to a serious dialogue on gun ownership in this country, but they were not terrorist in nature.  Terrorism does not mean “to terrorise”.

Why am I so insistent on this?  Despite the myriad definitions, violence has to include a few things to be considered terrorism:

a) it has to be a serious act of violence

b) it has to be carried out against non-combatants

c) perhaps most importantly, it has to be done for ideological reasons in the (mistaken) quest to impose change on society.

How does the mass shooting of women or the Lapierre’s desire for a gun for every law-abiding American constitute ideology?  Yes, both men are (or were) pathetically hateful creatures.  But hate does not equal ideology.  Ideology usually includes hate but it is not merely hate.  It is much more than that.

We should not resort to calling everything terrorism for a few reasons.  First it clouds our ability to understand the phenomenon and come up with ways to deal with it. Secondly it creates unwarranted fear.  And thirdly it is simply intellectual laziness.  All three lead to really bad decisions and positions – you only have to watch the wannabe Republican presidential candidates leap over each other to appear “tougher on terrorism” to see this in action.

Let’s impose greater rigour in the use of the term and not fall prey to knee-jerk instant analysis, shall we?

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.

One reply on “Defining terrorism – again”

I’d be interested to hear your opinion on an example like Columbine…You could argue that the Klebold and Harris believed (and publicized in videos) that they could actually create change, as in teach bullies and/or popular students a lesson and inspire like-minded individuals to do the same (in which they were certainly successful). Was/Is Columbine considered domestic terrorism? While I agree with your post, determining the presence of the third quality in your list is not always easy. But, again, I agree that “terrorism” is a much-abused word.

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