When is it terrorism?

(USA Today) -- The Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting that left more than two dozen dead on Sunday has not been labeled terrorism. But the New York City truck attack that killed eight people just a few days before was called an act of terror almost immediately. Why the difference? 

Let's start by looking at definitions: 

  • The FBI defines domestic terrorism as "perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature." 
  • Title 22 of the U.S. Code defines terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
  • Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as the "systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion."

These definitions of terrorism require that death and violence is not the only aim, but that there also be a political or ideological motive. In the case of the NYC attack, the suspect left a note pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, police said; federal prosecutors said he planned for a year as he drifted into a violent radical ideology

Though the motive is not yet known in the First Baptist Church shooting, the gunman had a history of domestic abuse and his in-laws attended the church.

However, despite these differences, many on social media focused not on those details but simply on race and religion of the suspects. It was yet another example of how "terrorism" is no longer simply a legal definition, but an increasingly politicized one.

The legal definitions also conflict with the feelings of many laymen, who would call "terrorism" any event that causes feelings of fear or terror, which certainly mass shootings do.




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