Almost immediately after the mass shooting in Orlando, people classified it as a terrorist attack and the shooter as a terrorist. However, this has me thinking about what exactly is terrorism and why do we call some things terrorism and other things are not terrorism.
My understanding is that a terrorist attack is considered any violent action that is designed to inspire fear against a community and has some political aims. Lately, we seem to call anything terrorism when a Muslim is involved or the attacker makes a passing reference to a terrorist group.
As we understand it now, the shooter in Orlando pledged allegiance or displayed some affinity with multiple terrorist groups, many of which are actually fighting each other in the Middle East. Not all terrorist groups work together in one big happy terrorism family. They have conflicting goals, methods, political aims, and even religious affiliation (Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, Hindu, etc.)
So, to classify all terrorists as Muslim terrorists or to immediately classify any Muslim who commits an act of violence as a terrorist is dangerous. When we use the word terrorism, it immediately conjures up the idea that there is an existential threat against our country and our community. It provokes a response beyond that which is normal for a criminal act. Suddenly, we have something to fear, plots and conspiracies that threaten our way of life, an act that is worth going to war for and worth curtailing civil liberties.
So, what is terrorism? I don’t have a great answer. But, I think we need to be careful about using the word terrorism and terrorist to explain the actions of deranged individuals.