COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — What constitutes terrorism? Recent mass shootings in the United States, including those in San Bernardino, California, and Colorado Springs, have renewed a debate about how to define these disturbing and deadly incidents.
One part of the argument hinges on how journalists refer to these crimes in the media, with some, such as Jack Jenkins, arguing that Robert Louis Dear, the shooter who killed three people and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in November, is clearly a terrorist. By contrast, Kevin Gosztola observes that the term terrorism is essentially meaningless due to misuse.
Beyond how the media discusses mass killings, another factor is when and how courts decide to bring terrorism charges against a suspect. On Nov. 30, a Colorado court charged Dear with first-degree murder, but it could take weeks or months longer before Dear could face additional charges, including terrorism, amid an ongoing federal investigation. At the same time, the shooting in San Bernardino is already being treated as terrorism by federal investigators.
According to Taylor Brown, writing in June for BBC News, in the United States incidents must meet three criteria to be legally called “domestic terrorism” — the crimes must be “‘dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law,’ are intended to intimidate or coerce civilians or governments, and occurs primarily within the US.”
However, differing regional and federal definitions muddy the waters of what is legally considered terrorism, and even the government often contradicts itself:
“But ‘different parts of the US government tend to have different definitions,’ says Gary LaFree, director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (Start).
The FBI and the Bureau of Prisons cannot even agree on the number of prisoners currently incarcerated on terrorism charges, he adds.”
Dylann Roof, who killed nine black worshippers at an historic Charleston, South Carolina, church in June, was charged with federal hate crimes and firearms violations a month later, rather than charges of terrorism, even though he made his racist motivations clear in an online manifesto.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch defended the decision, stating: “Hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism and we feel that the behavior that is alleged to have occurred here is archetypal behavior that fits the federal hate crimes statutes and vindicates their purpose.”
Additionally, Lynch insisted that despite the government’s “strong emphasis” on terrorism after 9/11, investigating and prosecuting hate crimes remains of “grave importance to the federal government.”
According to Huffington Post’s politics reporter, Julia Craven, one factor behind Roof’s lack of terrorism charges may be that he acted alone, perhaps inspired by hateful rhetoric online but not directly tied to an organized terrorist group.
That hasn’t stopped the federal government from treating the San Bernardino shooting as an act of terrorism, apparently based largely on one pseudonymous Facebook post pledging allegiance to Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the terrorist organization also known as the Islamic States, ISIS, or ISIL) made after the attack started. It’s unclear if the terrorist group was directly involved in training or aiding Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who were killed by police shortly after carrying out the attack on the public health center where Farook worked, killing 14 people and injuring 21 others during a holiday party.
Even former Attorney General Eric Holder has recognized the role of race and religion in the application of terrorism charges, when he spoke about Roof’s charges in July:
“We have a young man who apparently becomes radicalized as the result of an incident and becomes more radicalized as a result of what he sees on the Internet, through the use of his computer, then goes and does something, that by his own words apparently is a political/violent act.
With a different set of circumstances, and if you had dialed in religion there, Islam, that would be called an act of terror. It seems to me that, again on the basis of the information that has been released, that’s what we have here. An act of terror.”