Understanding terror

John MuenzbergJohn Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy


On June 17, 2015, nine people were killed in an Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The suspect in the case allegedly told police he committed the act to try and ignite a race war. Angry about race relations, he went into a church with a history of civil rights advocacy and killed nine non-combatants in the hope of changing public opinion and action, and changing it to one of violence. He has been charged with murder as a hate crime, but not terrorism.

One would assume that we all know what “terrorism” means, since we hear it and use the term frequently. We are fighting a war on terrorism, so we should be able to clearly define the term.

We all know what some examples of terrorism are. IRA Bombings, Suicide Bombings, 9/11. These are acts of terrorism. The difficult question is to determine what makes them terrorism, as opposed to simply breaking the law. While terrorist acts usually involve violence, most acts of violence are not considered terror.

The good news is that there are a number of internationally accepted definitions of “terrorism.” The bad news is that number is well over 200. In fact, different branches of the United States government have different definitions of terrorism. The State Department’s definition is different from the FBI’s definition.

Many people in the United States seem to equate terrorism with “bombs detonated by Muslim extremist groups,” or perhaps “acts done against the United States of America.” Yet, in general, these are not considered criteria for terrorism.

The basic framework for many definitions of terrorism are: 1) an act of violence; 2) committed against non-combatants; 3) for political motives. “Non-combatants” makes clear that this is not against the specific policymakers nor the military; violence against the military is traditionally classified as an act of war (although the state department makes further distinctions).

“Political motives” distinguishes terrorism from violence for personal gain or defense; murder for personal reasons is not a political motive.

The definition that the FBI uses is both more detailed and more broad. They substitute “crime” for violence. They also emphasize that the motive is for societal change, whether political, ideological, religious or other. They refer to citizens or the populace, rather than non-combatants. But the basic hallmarks are present.

Note that neither definition argues that the perpetrator must be part of an organization. Neither argues that the violence must be caused by religion. Neither argues that the terrorists must be foreigners. While many Americans focus on organized religious groups from overseas, a careful analysis of the definitions of terrorism should make clear that many domestic acts should also be considered terroristic, even if neither the FBI nor the media typically thinks so.

The murders in Charleston, South Carolina seem to fit this definition. After that event, six predominantly black churches were set on fire. More recently, churches near St. Louis, Missouri have been set on fire.

The fact that these are not caused by foreigners is not relevant. That these are not caused by Muslim extremists is not relevant. That these do not appear to be caused by members of a single organization is not relevant. What is relevant is that it is violence perpetrated against a specific group of civilians for the purpose of changing public opinion or policy. In this case, the public policy of the African-American community.

African Americans who seek equality will be punished. It’s is a violent way to silence a segment of society.