What happened in Las Vegas was terrible, but was it terrorism?

(Photo: ABC News)
(Photo: ABC News)

Definitions of terrorism matter. Even though there is no consensus definition in either the academic, policy, or law enforcement communities, definitions matter.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • From an academic and analytical standpoint, we need clear definitions so that we can identify and study like cases. This is essential for generating knowledge that can help us understand why terrorism occurs, the means that terrorists employ, and the range of potentially effective responses available to policy makers.
  • From a policy standpoint, the options will be different depending on what motivates an actor to engage in any act of violence, including mass murder. In short, policies aimed at preventing, defending against, and responding to any act of violence will differ depending on whether the individual or group was acting out of criminal self-interest (like Colombian “narcoterrorism” or the more recent brutality unleashed by the Mexican drug cartels), idiosyncratic factors such as mental illness (for example the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters), or some political motivation (as in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino).
  • From a law enforcement perspective, at least in the US, what happened in Las Vegas would not be considered an act of terrorism, as federal law defines terrorism as acts involving links to designated foreign terrorist organizations. Timothy McVeigh, for example, did not face terrorism charges for the Oklahoma City bombing. The reasons why domestic terrorism is not designated as such under federal law are wrapped up in questions of First Amendment protections and a reluctance to consider imposing legal sanctions based on political or religious ideologies, even if they are used as justifications for violence.

So what is terrorism? By definition, terrorism is a political act.

Here’s the most basic definition that I use with my students:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

Here’s a better, more detailed and nuanced, definition:

Terrorism is premeditated, politically, religiously, or socially motivated violence, or the threat of violence, against civilian targets by non-state actors, usually intended to influence an audience through the creation and exploitation of fear. In short, terrorism is a form of political theater designed to reach beyond the immediate victims of any given attack.

When we define terrorism as a form of political action, we can ask why groups and individuals choose that particular form — violence — over non-violent means in an attempt to produce a desired political outcome. It helps us understand how a group like the Army of God can emerge as a result of the perceived failure of non-violent groups like Operation Rescue to end the practice of abortion. Or how the inability of Students for a Democratic Society to end the Vietnam War through non-violent mass protest can lead to the emergence of the Weather Underground.

I think it matters that the media get it right insofar as the media has the ability to shape both public perceptions and policy responses.

If every act of mass killing is terrorism, then there is no substantive difference between Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, Wade Michael Page at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, or the Tsarnaev brothers at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

And yet we know they were all driven to act by different motives and impulses.

Not every terrible act is an act of terrorism. Not every case of mass murder, no matter how disturbing or terrifying, is terrorism.

Until we know more about why Stephen Paddock did what he did — and we may never know — we cannot call what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night terrorism.

I’ll take a knee


This “debate” we’re having about NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, has nothing to do with the anthem, or loyalty to the flag, or honoring our veterans, or our active-duty military.

It’s about protesting racial injustice, and specifically the rash of killings of unarmed African Americans by police under circumstances that are more than a little dubious.

But what if it were about the anthem, or the flag, or the military? I’d still take a knee, and support the right of anyone else to do likewise. Because, as an American, I’m not loyal to any of those things.

Back in January, when president-elect Donald Trump was said to be imposing personal loyalty tests on those who sought jobs in his administration, and those who were planning to protest Trump’s inauguration were denounced as disloyal to the office of the presidency, I wrote about what I was, and was not, loyal to.

Here’s some of what I had to say back then:

I am loyal to the values that our country claims to stand for, that our presidents vow to uphold, that our symbols – like the flag and the anthem – are intended to represent.

I am not loyal to any of these people, or offices, or things for themselves, but for the ideas they serve and embody.

So if I feel I need to burn a flag, or take a knee during the anthem, or turn my back on a president, or rally against another’s inauguration in order to stand up for the values that make us who we are as a people, then that’s what I’ll do.

I meant what I said in January, and I mean it today, nearly 10 months later. If we’re not loyal to our values and ideals, why be loyal to the symbols we claim they represent?

John Kelly is all of us

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reacts to Trump's UN speech. (AP photo)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reacts to Trump’s UN speech. (AP photo)

In case you missed it, President Trump made his debut before the United Nations General Assembly today, delivering a … unique … speech before the world body in which he:

  • Championed state sovereignty while calling for regime change in North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran.
  • Threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, which would, if taken seriously, mean the lives of 25 million North Koreans. For starters.
  • Announced, with all but a termination date, that the United States will pull out of the agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapons development program.
  • Used a childish nickname, “Rocket Man,” to taunt North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
  • Boasted about his electoral victory, the US stock market, and the proposed $700 billion we intend to spend on our military.
  • Pledged to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism” and to punish those who support it through providing safe havens, political, or economic support, while praising Saudi Arabia which provides political and economic support for radical Islamic terrorist groups.
  • Praised countries that have accepted refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq while standing unapologetic about our own refusal to do the same.
  • And used that issue as a springboard to blast what he described as “unfettered migration.”

It’s no wonder White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reacted the way he did.

The ISIS convoy that got away

An ISIS fighter on the bus to safety. (Photo: PRI)
An ISIS fighter on the bus to safety. (Photo: PRI)


So just how tangled is the tangled mess of the Syrian civil war?

The Wall Street Journal reported today on an incident that serves to illustrate the twisted web of typically contradictory but occasionally and uncomfortably overlapping interests on display amongst the myriad forces on the ground in Syria.

You need to read the article to get the full gist, but here’s a quick summary:

A convoy carrying hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families had been stranded for weeks in the Syrian desert, blocked by American airstrikes from reaching ISIS-controlled territory in the east of the country, near the Iraqi border. The convoy was pulling out from an area along the Lebanese border after an agreement was reached last month between ISIS, the Lebanese government, the Syrian government, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran. At the request of Russia, the US halted its airstrikes, allowing the convoy to reach safe haven.

The whole thing had noted security analyst Max Boot scratching his head this morning.

For the record, I don’t think this incident reflects the sort of misplaced priorities that Boot implies. It does, however, reveal the simple truth that there is no obvious common objective that all the players on the Syrian stage are pursuing. I’ve noted before the sheer complexity of the constellation of groups fighting the war, and their mixed and conflicting motives and objectives.

Just for starters consider that Russia, the United States, the Syrian government, Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, and Iran are all theoretically on the same side in the fight against ISIS. Except that from the beginning of its military intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia has aimed way more of its firepower against rebel forces that aren’t called the Islamic State.

Because Russia’s primary interest isn’t fighting ISIS at all, it’s in keeping its Syrian client, Bashar Assad, in power. So far, the civil war is playing out just the way Russia wants. And so it was only natural that Russia would call off US warplanes from the skies around the ISIS convoy so that Syrian regime forces could move through the area, with Russian air cover.

The Assad regime’s game is also an obvious one: liquidate any rebel factions, and their civilian supporters if necessary, that could represent a plausible alternative to his government that would also be acceptable to the international community. If the only option to Assad is ISIS, then it’s a fair bet that the world will hold its nose and let the Assad regime stand, war crimes and grotesque atrocities notwithstanding. This is why Syrian regime forces rolled past that ISIS convoy without engaging it. They have other fish to fry.

Lebanon and Hezbollah have complimentary but not identical objectives in all this. Both want Islamic State fighters as far from Lebanese territory as humanly possible. That’s where it ends for Lebanon. But Hezbollah is also fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, and so their interests are largely aligned with those of the Syrian state, its Russian patron, and their own Iranian, which conveniently also wants to see Assad retain his grip on power.

That brings us to the United States and its decision to accede to the Russian request to pull its aircraft away from the ISIS convoy. It’s too easy, and frankly too politically convenient, to suggest that this is just more Trump cozying up to his pal Vladimir Putin. And it’s not even necessary given that Trump has already made decisions that more meaningfully align with both Putin and Assad’s interests.

There’s a simple explanation for this one. US warplanes were withdrawn as part of the “deconfliction” protocol with the Russian which was put in place to ensure that American and Russian military forces would not find themselves in a situation where they might bomb, shoot at, or shoot down each other. With the Syrian army moving under Russian air cover, US forces were called on to pull out, and in keeping with protocol, they did.

Pentagon officials weren’t happy about letting that convoy go, but when the request came in from the Russians, they followed the rules of the agreement and US forces stood down.

Nothing nefarious here, just one more reminder of the complex mess the United States has gotten itself into in Syria.