When is an act of terrorism not an act of terrorism?

Many will jump to conclusions, sometimes based on preconceived notions or biases. Sometimes they will be right; sometimes they will be wrong. The consequences of getting it wrong are zero for the average person; they are higher for authorities.


Not surprisingly these days, whenever we hear of a violent incident in the centre of a city our minds turn immediately to the conclusion that it is an act of terrorism. This is not always true of course since there is always the possibility that an accident has occurred or that the perpetrators were not actually terrorists but perhaps others who engage in violence, gangs or organised crime figures say.

Still, given what has been happening all around the world over the past few decades it seems that our knee-jerk reaction is to categorically decide it must be the work of terrorists, and, most probably Islamist extremists, since those guys have been behind the vast, vast majority of acts of this nature for decades. Again, in light of far too many examples – London (several times), Manchester, Paris (several times), Barcelona, Ottawa, Orlando, Kabul (hundreds of times, etc., etc, etc. – it would be natural to jump to that judgment.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just sit back and allow those charged with keeping us safe to do their jobs?

Of course there are other incidents perpetrated by terrorists who are not jihadis, as the attack in the German city of Halle this week have demonstrated. It turns out that this was indeed an act of terrorism as the individual behind the shootings in a synagogue has already confessed to having hateful, ideological reasons for his acts.

And then we have what transpired in Manchester on Thursday.

Unlike the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, several stabbings at the Arndale Mall do not appear in hindsight to be terrorist in nature. A man in his 40s was arrested on suspicion of committing terror offenses in which he wounded four people. Authorities elected to look at the incident through a terrorism lens for good reasons: it is analogous to so many others. When you have had to respond to so many violent incidents that turn out to be the work of actual terrorists, jihadis, far right or whatever, we can forgive their initial analysis

But we are now learning that the suspect may not be what he was originally believed to be. According to the mayor of Greater Manchester, while counter-terrorism police are continuing an investigation into the incident it is now understood that no political, religious or ideological motivation has been uncovered so far. In other words, this may be a case of a guy with a knife, perhaps a mentally ill guy with a knife.

Then again, as the police keep looking into the affair they may uncover an underlying ideology, which would make it terrorism. My point is that we need to grant the authorities the time required to make that determination. I know that in an age of instant analysis and instantaneous online rumours, retweets and ‘likes’ no one wants to wait until more solid data is available. Nor am I that naive to think that my solitary call for patience is going to be heeded.

Many will jump to conclusions, sometimes based on preconceived notions or biases, that every similar act of wanton violence is terrorism. Sometimes they will be right; sometimes they will be wrong. The consequences of getting it wrong are zero for the average person; they are higher for authorities.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just sit back and allow those charged with keeping us safe to do their jobs?