Defining terrorism is often not an easy task. For many of us it’s one of those things that you know it when you see it, but if someone asks you to put it into words, it becomes more difficult than it seems. By the State Department’s definition, terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” In reality, there is no one definition of terrorism that the whole world uses.
What many Americans don’t realize is that our very definition of terrorism serves to increase the chances of a terrorist attack. It all comes down to how we relate terrorism almost exclusively with Muslims. Many militant organizations such as ISIS prey on individuals who feel marginalized and alone due to an overarching stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists. Take Chapel Hill, where a newly wed Muslim couple was shot point blank by a middle-aged white man under the guise of a “parking dispute.” Though this attack had plenty of media attention, there are many more like it that go largely unnoticed.
ISIS uses very specific tactics to mobilize individuals who feel marginalized by their own society. Recruitment starts off slowly, with general information and discussion. Recruiters often encourage a feeling of marginalization. As Rukumini Callimachi writes in the New York Times of one such encounter, a young woman in conversation with ISIS was encouraged to keep her decision a secret as “Muslims are persecuted in the United States,” and she didn’t want to be labeled a terrorist. Discrimination towards Muslims purports this feeling of isolation and attack that ISIS relies on to mobilize individuals abroad. Therefore, when we are provoked to fear, discrimination against Muslims grows and these retaliatory attacks further ISIS’s claims. And it is in this endless cycle that the conflict continues.
So how does our definition of terrorism play a part in this? Take, for example, the recent Las Vegas shootings. Almost all the criteria fit the State Department definition yet it was not labeled terrorism. This is because the attacker was an old white man, with no clear ideological motive. Had he been Muslim, it would immediately have been labeled terrorism, regardless of his declared religious or ideological motives. Now, the U.S. is reeling from the attack in New York. This time, the attacker was Muslim. Though ISIS claimed the attacks, evidence shows that the attacker acted alone and without the influence of the militant organization. But there was no question of this man as a terrorist.
By letting acts of terror control our actions in discriminating against Muslims, we continue to drive people into the arms of ISIS. This is where our definition of terrorism becomes important. Imagine that we broaden the definition of terrorism to encompass all acts of mass violence, regardless of political, religious or ideological affiliation. The point here is not to discourage politically motivated attacks, but violent attacks of all kinds. By labeling attackers like Stephen Paddock as terrorists, this would take the blame off innocent Muslims. It would begin to separate the stereotype of Muslims and terrorists and focus the blame on the real criminals.
The point is not the technical definition of terrorism, but rather the societal implications that it has and how it resonates in our society. In this case, it does much more harm than good. We need to talk about terrorism so that we can begin to break down these barriers and come to see the true terrorists for who they are and innocent Muslims as our brothers and sisters, in arms against the same enemy.