We are inundated these days with the word ‘Terrorist.’ Every day, there are dozens of news reports about terrorists striking out for whatever vague, personal, political, racial, cultural or psychotic motive they constructed. When I was a child, back many years ago, we never heard about terrorists. The random lone shooter who entered a church or movie theater or hid on a rooftop with a long range rifle was unheard of. Yes, of course, there was the occasional murdered wife or the occasional bar fight and, of course, gang violence and organized crime existed, but that mostly happened in big cities and was based on money and power, that are, somehow, more easily understood motivations, though no less abhorrent, than the senseless, seemingly random acts of violence that haunt us today.
“Terrorism” comes from the French word terrorisme, and originally referred specifically to state terrorism as practiced by the French government during the 1793–1794 Reign of terror. Although “terrorism” originally referred to acts committed by a government, currently it refers to the killing of innocent people for political purposes in such a way as to create a media spectacle. This meaning can be traced back to Sergey Nechayev, who described himself as a “terrorist” in 1869.
So it appears the word and concept have existed for a very long time, but over time terrorists themselves have changed. In 2004, the UN Secretary General described terrorism as an act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or international organization to do or abstain from doing an act.”
It seems that definition also falls short because not all terrorist acts appear to be politically motivated. And over time the term has been more widely used and more narrowly focused moving away from ‘governments and international organizations’ down to the micro level “…calculated to provoke a state of terror in the public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes….” Bruce Hoffman (Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 2 ed., Columbia University Press, 2006, p. 34.) identified some key characteristics of terrorism:
- ineluctably political in aims and motives
- violent – or, equally important, threatens violence
- designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target
- conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) and
- perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity.
But what of the lone gunman, shooting up churches or malls or elementary schools or high schools or movie theaters? Doesn’t a would-be Rambo barging into an Aurora, Colorado theater meet that definition as well? Wouldn’t we call Dylann Roof, who was recently indicted on 33 counts for his church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, a terrorist?? Hasn’t his brazen racially motivated homicidality engendered terror and intimidated people? Didn’t he, like the University of Virginia shooter, kill people in a random and unpredictable way? If a main goal common to terrorists is to make usually safe, rather ordinary places feel unsafe, haven’t these lone home-grown shooters accomplished that? Most researchers define terrorism on a macro level, referring to ISIS and Al Queda and Boka Haram as relating to national or international politics, using their bombs and guns and machetes as a bizarre bargaining tool. But, couldn’t we say that individuals with their own set of twisted personal, even psychotic goals can be classified as terrorists, as well?
More and more, we are encountering local home-grown ‘crazies’ who somehow slipped through the mental health and justice system cracks, who somehow managed to get a hold of serious weapons, who lived in communities much like yours and mine, who had parents much like yours and mine, but who are so unbalanced, deluded, sociopathic, psychotic and socially alienated that violence toward others has become their raison d’être. Within their minds they are likely to have some twisted, rationalized envisioned goals that could be construed as political, if political is broadly defined. They clearly want to effect change, make a statement and want to be heard.
The question is why do all these people, local or foreign, organized or loners, sane or insane resort to violence? It can’t be that all these people have unregulated limbic systems … can it? It’s more likely that when people are frustrated, on a personal or massive cultural level, because of poverty, or abuse or radical social injustice their basest instincts take over. When that happens that drive and energy overrides reasonable cognitive functioning and chaos is the result.
So you may be wondering what the solution is. I wish I could say it was more welcome wagons greeting neighbors with plates of cookies, but the answer is both more complicated and also simpler:
Embrace acceptance rather than hate, seek commonalities rather than differences and teach ‘use your words’ from the get-go.