Is it terrorism?

That's not going to be an easy question to answer until we figure out what we mean by terrorism.  The term used to refer to violence perpetrated against non-combatants by groups not obviously associated with an identifiable army, for the purpose of persuading the populace that it will be too dangerous to give their political support to a particular regime.  Lately the definition has mushed into something more like "deplorable and scary public violence by relatively crazy people who may have had a somewhat coherent political or social axe to grind."

Kareem Abdul Jabbar stuck to a fairly workable definition in his Times oped today:
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not this was a terrorist act. Terrorism is a political tool that has a specific goal. Terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan want to drive Americans out of their countries. Terrorists in other countries do it for the same reason: to gain political power. After an hour at the prayer meeting, Dylann Roof stood up and proclaimed that he was there “to shoot black people.” His rambling manifesto during the shootings was: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” In his mind he was a terrorist, but in reality this was nothing more than hate crime using terrorist tactics to enact his racist fantasy. Roof had no hope of driving African Americans out of the country, starting a race war or engendering any political or social change at all. We shouldn’t use it as an excuse to discuss terrorism because that diverts us from the actual problem.
Unfortunately he then returned to the useless "terrorism is whenever people do bad stuff" definition in urging us not to "allow this incident to be used as a political football by those who hope to leverage it to their gain, which is a more subtle form of terrorism: media terrorism." Granted that human beings often use incidents as political football for their own gain, calling such use terrorism is only silly. Jabbar was on a more promising track when he implied that the hallmark of terrorism was the hope of using violent tactics against ordinary (typically unarmed) citizens to engender a political or social change. Roof didn't look like a guy who hoped that the public murder of a number of black people would cause a mass exodus of black people from the United States, or even that fellow travelers would rise up and murder all the black people he couldn't get to personally. He was just a nut who thought the evils of the United States could be pinned on a particular ethnic group, who were therefore proper targets of his personal extermination program. Jabbar had another good point, I thought, in disparaging any attempt to view Roof's rampage as targeting Christians. If Roof had been completely silent, I might buy that as a plausible alternative, but his own words make it pretty clear that his problem with the prayer meeting wasn't the prayer but the race of the praying people.

Allahpundit analyzes the New York Times's take, which is that the dictionary definition of terrorism is "the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy." The "especially" leaves enough wiggle room to make this definition so all-inclusive as to be useless. When there is clear evidence of scary force as a political weapon or policy, I'm comfortable calling it terrorism; without that qualifier, we'd have to include a very large chunk of all violence, from domestic abuse to gang warfare to drug cartels to the Mafia. Those are all bad things, but why insist that they're all exactly the same bad thing? But then Allahpundit goes too far, I think, in differentiating the Charlie Hebdo murders from Dylan Roof's rampage on the ground that "When that jihadi animal killed four French Jews at a kosher deli in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo, no one thought that was a 'hate crime' because they were targeted first and foremost for their religion. It was terrorism." When you target people for their religion, I'm inclined to call it a hate crime, unless there's something else going on that makes it looks like organized political action. In the Charlie Hebdo case, the red flag wasn't the anti-semitism, it was the organization of the gang and its explicit ties to a political group. Not that it's necessarily any great linguistic advance to distinguish terrorism from hate crimes. The term "hate crimes" is nowhere near as useful as it's cracked up to be.


David Foster said...

Ralph Peters (I think it was) distinguished between "Practical Terrorism," which has a specific political goal, and "Apocalyptic Terrorism," which is motivated by the sheer joy of destruction. Of course, the first can easily morph into the second.

In any case, it is not particularly useful to use Terrorism as a category unless there is some form of collective action involved. If "kill blasphemous infidels" is preached in hundreds of mosques, then I would say that an attempt to kill Pam Geller (for example) as a blasphemer is indeed terrorism, even if the people attempting the act were not part of any formal organization. And if "kill African-Americans" were being preached from hundreds of Southern Baptist churches, or advocated in hundreds of southern Rotary Clubs, then it would be meaningful to call the Charleston murders terrorism. But absent such large-scale advocacy, the tag is not meaningful or useful.

Grim said...

The key question is whether terrorism can be perpetrated by an individual trying to affect politics, or if it has to be the act of a political organization. I think we're in a weird place with the definition because we used to ascribe it to organizations, but al Qaeda and its ideological allies have leveraged 'lone wolf' attacks often enough that it's blurred the lines between an individual and an organization.

In this case, the author probably intended an act of political terrorism that would motivate certain things to happen. He was just so detached from reality that he massively overestimated his potential support. The political goals are out of reach because there's not that base of potential support that can be forced to confront what they really believe to be true and act on it. The truth is, the beliefs he was drawn to stopped being commonly held decades ago. He really was 'the last Rhodesian,' in a time when almost no one in America could tell you where Rhodesia was, or that it isn't still, or just why, or what any of that means.

People are worried, with some justice, about changes to the culture brought about by massive immigration of people who don't speak the language or share the culture or its assumptions. No one (or very practically no one) is still worried about the concerns that motivated him here. He might have made his splash in 1925 or perhaps even 1936. In 2015, those beliefs are vanishingly rare, and without support even in people's unspoken fears or assumptions about the world.

So, in a way, it doesn't seem like terrorism because there's no chance of a political movement growing out of it. It seems too detached from reality to be a proper political goal, let alone to found a political organization or movement.

Grim said...

On the other hand, I think that a lot of people on the left believe (ironically, as he did) that 'White supremacy' really is the main unspoken ideology on the right (and especially in the South). So, from their perspective, this looks exactly like terrorism because they believe he's acting on the political agenda of a huge group of people.

So it seems weird to us, because we know that the assumption of a viable political movement is just false. He seems crazy and isolated because we know how far out he was. Since they believe we're all secretly like this, though, he seems to them like a terrorist actor of our ideological movement: and our debate about whether the term properly applies seems to them like an attempt to avoid owning up to our responsibility for him.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The word is a moving target. When I was a child it was a synonym for horror, used in movies and comic books about the bloody and macabre. It has gradually acquired a political meaning that is now dominant. I think we mean enough different things that the discussion is futile. I suspect people are throwing the word around now for political advantage of some sort.

It seems the young man was angry that he couldn't find enough good white supremacists to talk to nearby, which is different from a century ago. No one might have thought they could get blacks out of America, but plenty would have thought that a little violence might keep them out of one's own town or neighborhood.

Eric Blair said...

AVI brings up an interesting point--the only people Roof seems to have found to agree with him were on the internet. 25 years ago, he couldn't have found that, although 25 years ago it's possible he'd never have been able to look up and found what he was able to look up on internet now--the gate keeping is gone.

Interesting times indeed.

Texan99 said...

Good point--that particular ugly craziness is less common, but easier to find.

raven said...

It is all about leverage. Terms define the response. One wacko killer has a limited response set. "Terrorist", now with that term you can get the whole government on a rampage.