Two homemade pipe-bombs went off at a mall in central Florida on Sunday evening, causing little or no damage but prompting the evacuation of about 100 shoppers and staff. Police are seeking a “person of interest” described as a middle-aged white man with a heavy build, wearing a gray shirt and hat.
Police have so far declined to label the incident an act of terrorism, which has produced an inevitable reaction from some social media quarters:
2 IEDs explode at Florida mall, but according to CNN – terrorism “not suspected.” I wonder why… https://t.co/8npSBh5Z6A
— Ms. Entropy / سيدة الفتنة (@MsEntropy) January 22, 2018
Someone needs to explain the concept of domestic terrorism to these folks. It isn't just brown people that set off bombs.
— Shayna (@ShayITP) January 22, 2018
Now I fully understand the sentiment at work here, the perception that authorities are quick to cry terrorism when a person of color, typically a Muslim or someone thought to be Muslim, is the perpetrator of some act of violence, but call it anything but when it’s white guy who’s responsible. As I’ve written about before, there’s research that backs up the perception.
But in this case, I’m with the cops. So far they’ve made the right call:
“There is nothing at this time to indicate this act was terrorism,” he said. “At this time, we are checking video surveillance cameras.”
When asked why this incident wasn’t being characterized as terror, (Lake Wales Police Deputy Chief Troy) Schulze said, “We don’t know what the person was trying to achieve.”
And that’s the rub. Unless and until we get some evidence that gives us insight into the motivation behind any act of violence, we can’t call it terrorism, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. This is one of the key lessons that I try to convey to my students when I teach on terrorism.
I’ve written about this before, most recently following last fall’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. Even now, after four months of intense investigation, police there are no closer to understanding why Stephen Paddock meticulously planned and executed his attack on concert goers from the window of his high-rise hotel room.
So, did a middle-aged white guy carry out an act of domestic terrorism in Florida last night? Maybe. But maybe not.
Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history:
- Jan. 22, 1997 — Martinton, Ill.: Authorities raid the home of accused Ku Klux Klan member Ricky Salyers, a former Marine, discovering 35,000 rounds of heavy ammunition, armor piercing shells, live ammunition for grenade launchers, and other military gear. He was also believed to be a member of Black Dawn, an underground group of far-right anti-government extremists inside the US military.
- Jan. 23, 2001 — Yemen: A Yemeni airliner is hijacked with 91 passengers aboard, including the US ambassador.
- Jan. 24, 2011 — Moscow: A suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport kills 36 and wounds 180. Imarat Kavkaz, a Chechen group, claims responsibility.
- Jan. 25, 1976 — Lisburn, Northern Ireland: A bomb planted by Loyalist paramilitaries at the Hibernian Social Club kills two Catholic civilians.
- Jan. 26, 2009 — Democratic Republic of the Congo: Attacks are carried out on several villages leaving 36 civilians dead. Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda are believed responsible.
- Jan. 27, 1975 — London: The Irish Republican Army plants seven bombs at locations across the city, resulting in minimal damage or injuries. An IRA bomb goes off in Manchester, injuring 26 people.
- Jan. 28, 1982 — Italy: Police rescue US Army Brigadier Gen. James Dozier who was kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks earlier.