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.

Yes, this is terrorism

FBI investigators at the scene of a mosque bombing in Minnesota.
FBI investigators at the scene of a mosque bombing in Minnesota.


If a bomb goes off at a mosque in Minnesota and the headlines don’t call it terrorism, is it still terrorism?


And yet acts of terrorism in the United States get little attention from the media unless they’ve been perpetrated by or can be attributed to Muslim attackers. That finding by a group of researchers at Georgia State University made headlines around the world when it was released earlier this summer.

This is consistent with research (I wrote a little about it here) that one of my students and I presented at a conference a year ago¹ in which we found that American public opinion on the importance of terrorism as a problem responds not to actual terrorist incidents, but to media coverage of those events.

If, as the Georgia State researchers found, the media over reports acts of terrorism attributed to Muslim perpetrators, and under reports other cases, then this would explain why our project sees spikes in concern about terrorism after events like the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando but not the Emanuel AME massacre in Charleston.

My intuition, and the impetus for a new project that I will begin working on this fall, is that incidents like what happened in Minnesota early Saturday, as worshippers were gathering for their morning prayers, are rarely if ever even referred to as terrorism in the first place, despite meeting an unbiased conceptual/analytical definition of such acts.

If that’s the case, then that could account for both the Georgia State findings as well as the observed impact of media coverage on the perception of the extent to which terrorism is thought to be a serious problem by the American public.

Regardless, the bottom line remains the same: A bomb thrown through the window of a place of worship is an act of terrorism, even if the targets, but not the perpetrators, are Muslims.

¹The paper is being revised this summer for submission for possible publication, but you can email me at ptrumbor AT oakland DOT edu and I will send you a copy of the initial (rough) draft version.

No, congressman, there really isn’t a difference

Mourning the dead, Oak Creek, WI, 2012.
Mourning the dead, Oak Creek, WI, 2012.


US Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.) had a rough go on CNN the other day when he tried to argue that “there’s a difference” between terrorism committed by Muslims, and what he considered the “one-off” example of terrorism by white extremists like the recent killings of Muslim worshippers in Quebec by a French-Canadian white nationalist.

Watch the exchange between Duffy and CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota:

I wrote about the Quebec incident here, just the latest in a series of posts that I’ve made highlighting the threat of far-right, anti-government, white supremacist terrorism confronting the United States (and now Canada).

Of course the congressman is wrong. As Slate quickly pointed out, there have been nearly 40 incidents of lethal terrorism committed by white extremists in the years since the Oklahoma City bombing.

This list includes the 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Duffy’s own state of Wisconsin by white supremacist Wade Michael Page. Six people were killed in that incident.

Duffy’s poor memory and general ignorance on the topic of white extremist terrorism, whether racially, religiously, or politically motivated, is sadly not unusual. Americans tend not to recognize attacks like what Page did in Oak Creek, or for that matter Dylann Roof’s Charleston massacre, as acts of terrorism.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Wisconsin itself was in 2015 home to 16 antigovernment “patriot” groups, two of which, the Three Percenters Club and the Wisconsin Light Foot Militia, it classifies as armed anti-government militias.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at terrorism in Duffy’s state of Wisconsin to see what the good congressman has missed, or chosen to ignore.

Between 1994 and 2012, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were a full dozen acts of terrorism committed in Wisconsin. Three of these, one in May 1994, one in June, and one more in August of the same year, were carried out by a white supremacist group called the Aryan Republican Army.

Two attacks were made against abortion clinics in March 1999, part of an apparently related series of arson attacks on clinics nationwide in the same month. Whether these were coordinated incidents or simply copycats is unclear. Another attack was made on a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2012.

Individuals acting in the name of the Animal Liberation Front were responsible for three terrorist incidents, the first in August 1999, the second in October, and the third in March 2000. In July 2000 a bomb was planted by a former Air National Guard pilot at an airbase in Milwaukee, accompanied by graffiti calling for an end to US military intervention in Kosovo.

In 2012 white supremacist Wade Michael Page carried out his slaughter in Oak Creek.

A dozen terrorist attacks in Wisconsin between 1994 and 2012 and they all have one thing in common. None were committed by Muslims.

At war with America

Survivor Tree, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial
Survivor Tree, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial


Tomorrow night the PBS program American Experience airs a documentary on what remains the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history.

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck loaded with a five-ton fertilizer bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was the kind of bomb that leveled the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 US service members. It was the kind of bomb that the IRA used to turn the heart of London’s financial district to rubble in 1993.

By the time all the bodies were counted after that April morning in 1995, 168 people lay dead, including 19 children, 15 of whom had been in the building’s daycare center. Another 675 were injured in the blast.

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that a regular theme of mine has been trying to highlight the true nature of the terrorist threat that faces the United States. I won’t link to all the earlier posts, but you can get to several of them from here.

The bottom line remains the same, and PBS’ “Oklahoma City” reminds us of the fact: The biggest terrorist threat to America comes not from immigrants or refugees but from other Americans.

You can watch the first chapter of the film below, and tune in to your local public television station tomorrow night for the full documentary.