Friday, May 11, 2007

What Is An Act Of Terrorism?

I ask this question in all seriousness. In the past week or two the State Department has releases its annual list of terrorist attacks (an all time high according to the report) and the F.B.I. has arrested a group of men planning on attacking Fort Dix. The planned Fort Dix attack was labeled as a terrorist plot. I don’t think I agree.

1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce esp. for political purposes. Unabridged (v 1.1)

n. The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

These definitions are from dictionaries which are necessarily short and concise and don’t contain much nuance. Take the definition. Using that every war ever waged is an act of terrorism. Both definitions relate to the intent of an act of violence but I think that ignores two other aspects of an act of violence. I’ll start with those and come back to intent.

Ignoring possible issues with entrapment, the men recently arrested were planning to attack a military base. They were going to attacking soldiers. It seems to me that soldiers and their bases are legitimate military targets. Many of the acts of violence on the State Department list occurred in Iraq. Some of those were directed at our military.

I’m not a fan of the War On Terrorism label. As many people have said before me, and said more articulately, you cannot wage a war against a tactic. But, the U.S. is at war right now. We can argue when this war started and what the root causes are but I don’t know that one can intelligently argue that a war is not taking place.

Once we are at war then certain targets become legitimate. Soldiers, that are not POWs, are most obviously legitimate. From this point alone I must dismiss attacks on our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are acts of war in a war zone. Similarly, the planned attack on Fort Dix would be an attack on our soldiers and our ability to conduct an on going war. I am aghast and angry and pissed off that these men chose to attack us on our soil or for that matter that they chose to attack us at all. But they had decided to join the war and they chose legitimate war targets. Not terrorism.

What becomes more nebulous would be attacks on non-military government buildings and personnel. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City was that an act of terrorism? In this case, I think the answer is yes. McVeigh had a grievance, perceived or real, with the government. Instead of following the recourses available to all citizens he chose an act of violence as revenge and in a vein attempt to change government policy. McVeigh was a domestic terrorist.

But, what if an Islamist fighter blew up a CIA building on U.S. soil where he knew/suspected agents were reviewing satellite photos of his desert training camp? Or, maybe, destroyed a Montana state police station where investigators were looking into the Islamist fighter’s attempt to infiltrate the U.S. The government operations at the two hypothetical government buildings are hampering the Islamist’s ability to wage his war. On the other hand, they are not clearly military targets either. In my mind, the attack on the police station is clearly terrorism but the destruction of the CIA building is less clear. I don’t think I would call it terrorism but wouldn’t quibble with those that did.

Let’s revisit Oklahoma City for a moment. McVeigh turned a rental truck into a fertilizer bomb and destroyed the building and killed 168 people. But let’s change the circumstances a little. What if McVeigh and donned body armor and walked into the building with a couple of assault rifles and automatic pistols. McVeigh was a decorated army veteran, so let’s assume for this argument that he was able to kill the same number of people before being stopped. Would that still be a terrorist act?

If one says yes then one has to consider other mass shootings. What about the Columbine massacre or the more recent Virginia Tech massacre. Both created a great deal of fear and anxiety. Columbine changed government policies. In response to this and other shootings schools across the nation now have a great deal more security. If I have my history straight in my head the assault rifle ban finally passed after the attack as well. Additionally, at least rhetorically, society started paying more attention to disenfranchised youth. But it wasn’t really terrorism, was it? No, I don’t think so either.

But what about McVeigh with an assault rifle? In hindsight, I think we’d say yes it was still terrorism. However, I don’t know if that would actually be the case. If McVeigh had walked into the federal building and went berserk I think we might classify him as a mass murderer or spree killer. Investigations would have discovered his hatred of our government and a few may refer to him as a terrorist but I don’t believe it would be a widespread opinion. As I write this I begin to wonder how opinion of this might differ if McVeigh were a Muslim from the Middle East. Would I come to a different conclusion? I think (fear?) I might.

But let’s talk about the Beltway Sniper Attacks. In October 2002 two men shot and killed 10 people around the Washington D.C. area and critically injured 3 others. Were John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorists? Finally we get to intent.

According to Malvo’s testimony the two were commiting their crime spree as a prelude to extoring money from the government

Before reading about the “Real Plan” I don’t think I would have qualified this as terrorism. Now, I would put it on the cusp. The intent was to cause enough fear to extort something out of the government. In this case, money. This is on the cusp of terrorism. The difference is that the D.C. snipers were inspired by greed.

A group could employ similar fear tactics to attempt to change government policy. Consider what happened in Maryland. A very radical environmentalist group tried to stop a development by attacking the property via arson. The Washington Times refers to the incident as ecoterrorism.

So, I come down close to the definitions above. Intent is probably the most important part of a the definition of terrorism. I think its clear that the wider definitions we are using now are based on politics. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the subsequent wars we’ve fought the chances of the Fort Dix plot being referred to as terrorism was much less. In fact, if the plotters had been of European or east Asian decent I would all but guarantee we wouldn’t have used the term. Now days, it seems like our prejudice is to all every act of violence as terrorism either because of blinders or for policital advantage and expediency.

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