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How do we define terrorism? Some remarks in the light of the Charlottesville attack

A driver purposely plows into a group of people with intention to kill in the name of ideology. Terrorism, right? This type of event is becoming more common, reflecting a recent trend in global terrorism of extremists steering vehicles into innocent crowd. And this is what happened in Charlottesville. Yet, for some reason for many the immediate response was different. The recent horrible Charlottesville attack on counter protesters has been one of those moments when political leadership preferred to define the event as a murder instead of as terrorism. The Charlottesville attack is not unique. Another notable example is the Charleston church shooting where people debated if it was a terrorist attack or “plain” murder. Despite multiple mass shootings and other attacks across the US, only a handful are marked as terrorism.

This brings to mind two questions: What is terrorism?, and Who decides what is terrorism and what is not?

Talking about terrorism occurs on two plains simultaneously: the legal and political. The legal is the one that needs to be proven in the court of law and draws of a broad jurisprudence on the topic. Though this may seem like a clean and simple process, in reality it suffers from much unclarity. First, on the international level, different legal systems across the globe do not share the same definitions for terrorism. For example, Russia does not designate Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations while most Western countries do. Given that terrorism has an international dimension, this gap makes it harder to collaborate in investigation or capture group members of known perpetrators. However, the unclarity does not end on international borders. State agencies often hold different definitions for what terrorism is. For example, in the US there is no a unified legal binding definition to terrorism that is agreed upon among all state agencies. At the moment, there are more than seven official different definitions.

Often times this unclarity pushes the decision of calling out an act or a person as “terrorist” towards the political sphere. Obviously, once politics are involved, the waters become even muddier. And while politicians are the most notable of political actors, other actors take part in this political definition of terrorism. This means that it is contested in the public sphere among individuals, communities, religious organizations, interest groups, politicians, corporations, and many others. It means that we all play part in it in one way or another, though not all of us as influential as others. In this plain, the actors’ effect hinges on their ability to influence the decision makers directly and indirectly. For the most part, the political plain is conservative since its boundaries are the sum of our biases, stereotypes, stigmas, and fears. In cases of an attack against civilians those notions will guide the direction of legal interpretation. For example, how would we define mass shooting in a mall by an individual with a radical world view? Let’s assume it is a white college student. Now, let’s assume it is a Muslim college student. In contemporary American culture the white college student will be viewed as a disturbed individual while the Muslim as a terrorist, even if their motivations are identical. This bias converses with what society defines as a threat and not what is actually a threat. It is easier to find someone with the characteristics of the “out group” (Muslim) as a threat than someone from our “in-group” (white student).

This bias is universal. Depending on the culture, some people are defined as threat, while others are not. In Sri Lanka Tamils are the threat, in Israel it is the Palestinians, in Turkey the Kurds and the list go on. When the details of the case do not fit neatly into our stereotypes, the political voices step in, each pulling in a direction that fits their pre-conceived agenda. When these voices step in, there are two things we should all do. First, we should act as critical consumers of information and not let political actors dictate their interpretation for the event to us. Second, be political, step out of your comfort zone and participate in the political discourse, making sure that your voice will be heard.

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