A Simple Rule for Defining Terrorism

A scene from the campus of The Ohio State University. Photo via Jagrap.

By David Siegel.

On Monday, a student at Ohio State – who was also a permanent United States resident from Somalia – injured 11 people on the University’s campus. He did so using both a car and a knife. Because he is Muslim, posted his displeasure at perceived treatment of fellow Muslims on Facebook, and included a vague threat there, the first response of many has been to assume terrorism. This is entirely the wrong response.

There have been a number of different definitions of terrorism used both by government agencies and in scholarly discourse. These definitions focus on many aspects of terrorism, but one stands out: terrorism is a tactic that necessarily employs an intermediary in order to have an effect.

In other words, when terrorism has an effect, it is not because the attack actually weakens the target country in any substantial way. Rather, it is because intermediaries such as the media broadcast news of the attack to many more people. This spreads fear and the sort of responses fear generates, including concessions and crackdowns.

The Ohio State attack certainly satisfies the first part of this: as reprehensible as the attack was and as frightening as it must have been to all involved, it did not in any way weaken the material strength of the United States. It does not satisfy the second part, however. If one has to comb through the writings of the perpetrator of the attack after the fact to find evidence that he might have adhered to some particular ideology, then any fear he generates cannot be clearly tied to the political or social motivations of a particular group.

Nor should it be. For one thing, we have no group to concede to or crack down upon. For another, the simple fact that a person who perceived oppression and turned to violence constructed some justification for his intended action is minimally informative. We all look for justification for our actions, as part of the process of motivated reasoning humans are so good at. It doesn’t imply the justification has any larger meaning, nor that others should pay any attention to it.

In fact, paying attention to the self-justification of an attacker like the one at Ohio State is not only unnecessary, it is the only way that the attack can act as terrorism and so have a larger effect. If we ignore the motivation, then the attack is a tragedy, certainly, but an isolated one that will produce no follow-on tragedies. Further, ignoring the attacker’s name and purported justification reduces the incentive of any actual terrorist group to call for lone-wolf attacks.

If, however, you spread his name widely and discuss the justifications he left behind, you accomplish exactly what actual terrorist groups wanted to accomplish by calling for lone-wolf attacks: attention to their causes and incentives for the government to concede or crack down, depending on the strategy the group is playing. In short, the only way terrorist groups can use these sorts of lone-wolf attacks to accomplish their goals is if we quite deliberately choose to let them.

It should go without saying that we should not play into the hands of terrorist groups. Thankfully, we can avoid doing so by following one simple rule: if an attacker or attacking group did not signal its intentions and motivations prior to the attack, the attack is not by definition terrorism, and should not be treated as such.

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