Matt Evans: A Clarifying Point About The Definition Of Terrorism


Yesterday, a naturalized American Citizen from Kuwait opened fire on a military recruiting station and a Naval Reserve station. At the latter location, he ended up killing 4 US Marines.

The media and various government officials were quick to call this an act of domestic terrorism.

Here is the beginning of the Wikipedia article on terrorism:

Terrorism is commonly defined as violent acts (or the threat of violent acts) intended to create fear (terror), perpetrated for an economic,[1] religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (e.g., neutral military personnel or civilians).

Now, there is lots of disagreement on what is or isn’t terrorism.

However, the point I wanted to emphasize in the definition above is at that clause at the end – “which deliberately target non-combatants”

Unlike the attacks against the WTC on 9/11 – which were against civilians in an office building, and unlike when Hamas sends a suicide bomber into a grocery store or children’s school, which again, are all civilians in civilian places – the recent attacks in Tennessee were against soldiers at military facilities.

That doesn’t make them ok. Just to be perfectly clear, I am not happy that this guy started shooting at American soldiers in America. A much happier ending to that story would have been 1 dead idiot and 4 Marines high-fiving each other while a bald eagle circled overhead.

However, the fact that he specifically attacked a recruiting station and a military base does suggest to me that the attacks were not terrorism.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]I’m writing about this because I want us to be careful about the words we use when we discuss violent events. [/mks_pullquote]

After all, he was specifically targeting the military of the United States.

That’s valid. If you’re really upset with the United States, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Leave the civilians alone, attack the military, win or die.

The shooting was asymmetric, that is, this guy didn’t announce that he wanted to fight the US military and then agreed to meet at a time and place wearing an approved uniform. That would be an absurd thing for one guy to do. However, despicable as he is, this guy is more moral than the folks behind 9/11, because this guy at least decided to attack military folks at military facilities. This guy was less evil than someone who blows up a school, airport, or grocery store.

Please don’t think that I condone, approve, or agree with the actions of the shooter.

But he was more moral than say, our most infamous domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh. While I happen to also be upset about some of the things McVeigh was upset about (e.g. the Waco and Ruby Ridge massacres, and the expanding power of the Federal government), McVeigh blew up a government building full of civilians, including a day care. Daycares are not valid military targets. However justified your anger is, you don’t win hearts and minds by blowing up daycares.

But attacking military targets – even badly, and with cowardice – is at least more honorable than what Timothy McVeigh, or Hamas, or ISIS, or Al-Qaeda have done to innocent civilians.

I’m writing about this because I want us to be careful about the words we use when we discuss violent events. People all over the world are at war with the US. I have a big problem with the idea that anyone who does violence is a terrorist until they have their own government.

For one thing, that would mean that ISIS isn’t a terrorist organization – because like it or not, they are the de-facto government of parts of the middle-east at this point. So, I don’t agree with definitions of terrorism that always exclude state actors, and always include non-state actors. ISIS are terrorists, because they intentionally attack innocent civilians, and do so in the most brutal ways possible to strike fear into civilians to bring about political change. That’s textbook terrorism.

For another thing, the colonists who fought the British in 1775 and 1776 didn’t have their own government (yet). They were “irregulars”, who fought against their own British army and won. Were they “terrorists” because they didn’t have a government?

Of course not.

But if the British had crushed the American secession of 1775, perhaps that’s what Washington and friends would be called today – terrorists.

I don’t think the Americans of 1775 were terrorists. The proper definition has to do with who you attack, how you attack, and what you hope to achieve.

This Tennessee guy took a rifle and shot at real soldiers. His lack of accomplices doesn’t make him a terrorist. His lack of a uniform doesn’t make him a terrorist. His lack of a government sponsor doesn’t make him a terrorist. His lack of a viable plan doesn’t make him a terrorist.

He was an idiot, and it’s nice that he’s dead.

He was probably not, however, a terrorist.

As perverse as it sounds, it would actually be better to live in a world where the violent people who hate us only ever attacked our soldiers, instead of attacking our churches, schools, and cities.

Interestingly, there are reports that this guy may have been linked up with ISIS. I expect that will be clarified in the coming days. If ISIS is a terrorist organization, but is in fact also a government, and it sends 1 soldier to attack a valid military target in the US, is that an act of terrorism or an act of war?

Finally, if this guy was working with ISIS, it’s incorrect to call him a domestic terrorist. He was an American citizen, but if he attacked the American military at the request of a foreign government, then he is a traitor.