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Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’: A Primer

Special Report

Benjamin Radford

April 2, 2018


In the weeks since Mark Conditt died as police closed in on him, many on social media have been asking why he was not being referred to as a terrorist or his bombings labeled “terrorism.” (The same question often arises in other high-profile crimes as well, but here I focus on Conditt’s case specifically, as each incident has its own set of particulars which may weigh more strongly for or against a terrorism label.)

The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say...” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on).

There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts.

So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively.

The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.)

As an NPR article explains, “there isn’t a federal charge of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The Patriot Act’s definition gives the Justice Department broad authority to investigate an individual or any group a suspect might be affiliated with. But the federal law doesn’t come with an actual criminal charge. To be charged with terrorism, a person has to be suspected of acting on behalf of one of nearly 60 groups that the State Department has declared a foreign terrorist organization. Some are well-known, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, while others are far more obscure. Most, but not all, are Islamist. A person who carries out a mass attack and survives can face a range of charges, but unless the person is linked to one of the banned groups, a federal terrorism charge won’t be one of them.” This would be a formal, legal definition of Terrorism.

Of course, as the examples above illustrate, the American public rarely uses the legalistic definitions of common words such as terrorism. A friend of mine recently posted this widely-held sentiment on Facebook: “Despite it not being the legal definition, I’m completely fine with calling someone who makes an effort to scare, maim, and kill numbers of people a terrorist.” Let’s call this broader definition terrorism with a lowercase t.

With that in mind let’s break down and unpack the question: “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” In order to meaningfully answer that question you need to specify who you’re talking about, and which definition of terrorism you’re referring to.

Who’s They?

When people ask “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” there seems to be five main groups that they refers to:

  1. Local police (in this case, of Austin Texas);
  2. Non-law enforcement government officials (e.g., Texas governor, President Trump);
  3. Journalists or “the media”;
  4. Federal law enforcement authorities (such as the FBI); and
  5. The public generally.
  1. Local police. Whether a crime is Terrorism or not is not typically determined by local police (and city laws may not include Terrorism). There’s no reason Conditt would be called a Terrorist by the Austin police department absent a determination of such by federal agencies. There is presumably no law or regulation preventing them from doing so in their official capacity, but that determination would not normally be in the purview of city police.

    In this case Austin police chief Brian Manley did refer to Conditt’s actions as terrorism in a March 22 interview with television station KVUE, in which he said, “My opinion is that he created terror in our community by his actions and he stole lives from our community.”

  2. Non-law enforcement government officials. As with the local police, whether a crime is Terrorism or not is not determined by a state governor or President Trump. There is presumably no law or regulation preventing them from doing so, but making that determination would not normally be under the purview of governors or presidents. There is some precedent for politicians referring to mass attacks as terrorism (for example in the case of Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, several members of Congress described the attack as an act of terrorism), but it varies by person and incident.
  3. Journalists and “the media.” Determination of whether a crime is officially/legally considered Terrorism is not made by reporters, so Conditt wouldn’t be referred to as a Terrorist until the FBI has made that determination. As The New York Times noted, “For the most part, journalists tend to follow the lead of law enforcement on whether to call a crime an act of terrorism. The New York Times called the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing an act of terror, but not the 2002 Washington-area sniper attacks.” The fact that Conditt is not widely being called a Terrorist is actually a sign of good reporting; if news reports referred to him that way and it turned out he wasn’t, they’d be criticized for getting it wrong.

    As I have previously explained, the idea of a homogeneous entity called “the media” is flawed, so the premise that “the media” are not calling Conditt a terrorist is false. Much of the news media have widely called Conditt a terrorist, including the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. There are many other examples as well.

    The extensive news articles and posts discussing whether Conditt should be considered a Terrorist helps cement the association between Conditt and terrorism in the public’s mind. This is a well-known principle and among skeptics called the Familiarity Backfire Effect, researched by Stephan Lewandowsky (“To debunk a myth, you often have to mention it—otherwise, how will people know what you’re talking about? However, this makes people more familiar with the myth and hence more likely to accept it as true.”) Thus it’s likely that someone reading a news article about Conditt associating him with the word (and concept of) terrorism will come away with the impression that he was in fact a terrorist, regardless of whether he formally fit the FBI’s official criterion for Terrorism.

  4. Federal law enforcement authorities (such as the FBI). Unlike the other four groups listed here, the FBI and Department of Justice do have the authority to charge people and groups with Terrorism. As noted, the law defines terrorism as violent, criminal acts that are intended to intimidate or coerce civilians and governments for an ideological, political, or religious purpose.

    The key here is intention or motivation, which so far has not been established in the case of Mark Conditt. The targets could have been random, as was the case in the D.C. sniper case. Or there could have been some commonality; the police found Conditt’s list of potential targets that “have no common thread,” either geographically or demographically.

    In some cases there is disagreement within government about what constitutes Terrorism. For example when James Hodgkinson opened fire on a crowd of Republican congressmen in June 2017, the FBI did not formally call the act Terrorism, though Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan L. Porter did. (The question of whether the definitions of Terrorism should be changed is a legitimate one, and beyond the scope here. I’m explaining why “they” haven’t called Conditt a terrorist, not defending or criticizing the regulations informing that determination.)

  5. The general public. I haven’t found any polls or surveys specifically asking the public whether they believe Mark Conditt was a terrorist, so this assertion is difficult to quantify. It’s not clear that most Americans aren’t calling him a terrorist—particularly in light of the widespread social and news media specifically suggesting he was, as described above.

    As to why specific members of the general public do or don’t think of Conditt as a terrorist, there are of course as many motivations as there are people. Some who don’t think of Conditt as a terrorist (much less a Terrorist) could be motivated by any number of factors, ranging from racism to the lack of a clear motive for the bombings. The public rarely reaches a consensus about anything, so it would not be surprising if many Americans didn’t consider him a terrorist.

The idea that racism and xenophobia influence public policy and laws is hardly novel; we see this in countless examples from drug sentencing laws to immigration policies. As noted, the way the law is currently written there isn’t a federal charge specifically of “domestic terrorism,” which means that most of those charged with Terrorism will, by definition, be foreign nationals. Research from Georgia State University also suggests that the news media give disproportionate coverage to terrorism committed by Muslims as compared to non-Muslims.

The role in the public’s perception of what constitutes terrorism is less clear. This is because public speculation about a terroristic motive in a massacre or bombing often precedes identification of a suspect (and therefore his race). People were talking about the Austin serial bomber possibly being a terrorist before Conditt was caught and identified, particularly after it became clear that the bombs were the work of one person or group. This is not because the (then-unknown) bomber was assumed to be a person of color, but because of the nature of the crime: what other motive could there be for a serial bomber? The same happened with mass shootings by Stephen Paddock, James Holmes, James Hodgkinson, and others: the nature of the act caused the public to assume the acts were terrorism.

Nor is it clear that a formal determination of whether a given attack is Terrorism or not holds great sway over the public’s perceptions; it’s not as if the general public are accepting of mass murders but not Terrorists. Regardless of what the FBI or President Trump call it, the fact is that Mark Conditt is widely considered a terrorist.

A fuller discussion of terrorism, its definitions and sociocultural aspects, is beyond the scope here. In the end, the seemingly simple question “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” contains a multitude of assertions and assumptions which must be unpacked and analyzed to be meaningful. Terrorism—both real and asserted—unfortunately plays a role in America today, from school shootings to massacres to bombings. The victims of terrorism (and Terrorism)—as well as all Americans—deserve a substantive discussion of the topic instead of glib and facile platitudes.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).