Terrorism is a charged term and for good reason. The crime evokes fear and an inability of states to keep their citizens safe from outside (or inside forces). And fear of course is the goal of those who are behind this nature of attack. Even if there is little agreement on how terrorism is defined (does it have to be state- or group-sponsored? can it include attacks on soldiers?) there is likely a consensus that it is an act of violence that seeks to change the way we do things or go about our daily lives.
Some incidents are clearly terrorist in scope. There should be no opposition to calling what happened yesterday in Kabul, or a few days ago in Baghdad or last week in Manchester terrorist acts. They were all directed at civilians (another frequent characteristic) and aimed to sow terror. It helps when a group like Al Shabaab or Islamic State lays claim to the carnage or when an individual leaves behind a long manifesto (like Anders Breivik) or a video justification (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and the 7/7 bombers). These are the ‘slam dunks’ of terrorism classification.
Then there are those cases on which there lies a lot of debate as to what to call them. They are clearly acts of violence, but are they terrorism? Some say yes, some say no, and some see an inherent – and unfair – bias to when we use the word ‘terrorism’ and when we don’t (i.e. if the perpetrator is a Muslim he is by default a terrorist and if he is white he isn’t).
In this light we come to a despicable event in Portland, Oregon, in the US Pacific Northwest. Jeremy Joseph Christian is accused of attacking three men on a train, killing two, after the men intervened in Mr. Christian’s profanity-laced tirade against two Muslim women. Some see the assailant as a right-wing extremist, and hence see the crime as terrorism (brilliant author Joseph Kechichian is in this camp). Others see it as a hate crime. For his part – not that it matters – Mr. Christian calls himself a ‘patriot’.
Terrorism or hate crime (we’ll ignore the suspect’s view of himself)? Can we tell? Does it matter? All good questions that may not have an easy answer. In fact, we may never be in a position to categorically decide since we may never have access to enough data to be confident one way or the other.
At its core terrorism is all about hate. Terrorists and terrorist groups ooze hatred for all kinds of perceived enemies and for all kinds of grievances, real or perceived. If we are lucky, a group will tell us whom they hate and why, as Islamic State did last year. Sometimes the hatred is more diffuse and verging on the bizarre. Nevertheless, find a terrorist and you’ll find some degree of hate.
But there are two other aspects to terrorism that have to be taken into consideration. The first we have already alluded to: the attempt to make us afraid and get us to change our lives. On this count the incident in Portland looks less like terrorism and more like one individual’s hateful mindset. Was the accused trying to force US Muslims to avoid trains? To leave the country? To be afraid to venture in public? To my mind at least none of this is clear, let alone remotely feasible.
Then there is the question of ideology. Terrorism is ideologically-motivated serious violence. What was Mr. Christian’s ideology? Was he part of a group that espouses a well-crafted set of principles and ideas? If he is a lone actor can we box his ideology? I don’t know based on what I have read. Sure, he seems to have dabbled in generic white supremacist garbage and praised Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh. But beyond that? The same question confronts us in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebecer who shot up an Islamic Centre back in January.
I heard a term from an old friend yesterday that strikes me as a good compromise: incoherent ideological violence. I take this to mean that an act of violence can be seen as somewhat ideological in nature even if that ideology is half-baked. In other words, we don’t have to nail down all the details of a worldview in order to call it ideology. This might work in the Portland and Quebec City cases as well as for Justin Bourque’s rampage in Moncton in 2014.
What about the question ‘does it matter?’ It depends on who is asking. For communities – like Muslims – some consistency on when to apply the terrorism label does matter. For the law a charge of terrorism may have sentencing implications. For the average citizen I am not sure it does.
In the end we have to acknowledge, as I wrote in an earlier piece, that not every act of serious violence is terrorism (in fact, very, very few are). Secondly, while all acts of terrorism are hateful, not all hate is terrorist. Some people are just full of blinding rage and lash out at whomever they see as deserving of their hate. They are not necessarily terrorists.
This debate is far from over. More acts of violence will occur and many sides will lobby for calling them terrorist. Definitions are poor tools to arbitrate when we engage in emotional arguments.