Who is a terrorist?

I’ve been reading a bunch of interesting takes on the question of whether Joe Stack (the guy who flew the plane into the IRS building in Texas) is a “terrorist” and whether the word has any meaning at all.

I think there’s a lot of truth in Glenn Greenwald’s argument that as actually used by the American media, the word has become racialized, and essentially means “a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.”   But I think the more interesting question is whether it is possible to set that definition aside and draw a line someplace that makes sense.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any question that the 9/11 perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh, the IRA bombers of the 1980s,  and the Beslan murderers all qualify as terrorists.

On the “just nuts” side of the fence, I’d clearly put Amy Bishop and the Columbine murderers.  In both cases, the attacks were aimed at people known to the killers, and were not politically motivated.

The government was pretty quick in the case of both Nidal Hassan (the Ft Hood murderer) and Joe Stack to reassure the public that these were “not terrorist acts,” by which I think they mean “were not linked to a larger network of terrorists.”  By contrast, Najibullah Zazi, who just pled guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the New York City subways, is considered a terrorist, because he was recruited and trained by al-Qaida.  I’m not sure I buy that distinction — which would put McVeigh on the “not terrorist” side — but at least it makes some sense and isn’t purely racial.

I think I’m inclined to say if you’re killing people — especially civilians — you don’t know, and are politically motivated, I’m ok calling you a terrorist, even if you’re acting entirely alone.  That would make Stack and the Unabomber terrorists.  I don’t know enough about Hassan’s motivation or Bruce Ivins’ (the alleged anthrax killer) to say with any confidence which side they’re on.

That said, I sort of agree with Jill in thinking that some actions — flying an airplane into a building, bombing a public building or public transportation — are maybe inherently terrorist, regardless of your motivation or whether you’re part of a network.  But my examples (Beslan on one side, Columbine on the other) suggest that other things , eg. shooting up a bunch of kids at school — are not.

What do you think?  Does the distinction matter?

2 Responses to “Who is a terrorist?”

  1. Jody Says:

    I don’t have time to get into this at great length, but it seems to me that Joe Stack wasn’t a terrorist, because his motivation wasn’t to achieve a political or military goal by terrorizing a civilian population. He was mad at a particular branch of government, and he attacked that branch. A guy who shoots up his local post office isn’t a terrorist, he’s just a mass murderer. Same sort of thing.

    Now, if there were guys all over the country aiming to attack all the branches of government, and make government service and visiting government buildings a dangerous act for civilians? They would be a terrorist network. But one lone guy who’s mad at the IRS? I just can’t bring myself to classify that as terrorism.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    I don’t have any insightful comments – although you’ve made me rethink my automatic reaction that the “he’s not a terrorist” comment from the government was knee-jerk racism.

    But I wanted to say how nice it is to see you blogging again! Although I saw the posts about you moving to a new site, I somehow missed picking you up in my feedreader, so haven’t seen you this year. I’m looking forward to checking out the books you’re reading.

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