The Definition of Terrorism
I’ve sometimes heard that there is no definition of terrorism. I wish somebody had told the Marine Corps this; as a young Lance Corporal I had to take a distance course on terrorism that included a written test that, among other things, asked for a definition of the term. It would have saved both young Lance Corporal Casberg and the Marine Corps time and energy if someone had the good sense to decide terrorism was an esoteric point not worth grilling junior Marines over.
Yet terrorism has a definition. I have seen the words in military courses and counterterrorism manuals and dictionaries. More sharply, I have seen evil breathe these words to life in recent weeks across the American South. In Charleston, nine parishioners lay dead after Dylann Roof’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As of writing this, as many as seven black churches have been torched in a string of fires. It’s too early to rule on any of them, but the main cause suspected in many cases is either arson or vandalism. Altogether, a wave of terror has descended on black churches in the South.
Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” An old Marine Corps manual defines it as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”1 The manual also states,“The strategy of terrorists is to commit acts of violence that draws the attention of the local populace, the government, and the world to their cause. The terrorists plan their attack to obtain the greatest publicity, choosing targets that symbolize what they oppose. The effectiveness of the terrorist act lies not in the act itself, but in the public’s or government’s reaction to the act.”2
The deaths of innocents or the destruction of property is not the end goal of terrorism. Those are the means to an end, as are all the tools in their belt: murder, arson, kidnapping, assassination, blackmail, bombing, and hijacking—all used to accomplish their ideological objectives. The terrorist’s game is fear. Typically small and militarily weak, terrorist organizations and radicalized individuals often cannot engage conventional military tactics. They cannot win their goals by strength alone. Therefore, they employ small-scale violent and coercive acts to intimidate the public or the government into submission, or to rally them to their cause.
This is precisely what Dylann Roof was doing. Roof’s rambling, nigh-incoherent manifesto clarifies his goals: to perform a symbolic act in a symbolic location for the whole world to see. He aimed to alert the public to the cause of white supremacy, to be the one who sparked an ideological conflagration. He aimed to rally people to his side. Whoever is burning black churches is doing the same. These squarely fit the definition of terrorism. They are textbook cases of the calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear in the pursuit ideological goals.
Since September 11th, we’ve stood watch with anxious hearts for those who would use these tactics in the United States—but only if these terrorists have Islamist objectives. Meanwhile, for all our fears of Muslim terrorists, white supremacists and anti-government radicals have killed nearly twice as many Americans in domestic attacks as Islamists have.3 The manual I quoted earlier also says, “All terrorist acts are criminal and intolerable, whatever their motivation and
should be condemned” and “The United States will support all lawful measures to prevent terrorism and bring those responsible to justice.”4 We must pursue justice in the cases of Dylan Roof and the arsonists as zealously as we do in the cases of foreign terrorism. We must be equally vigilant for attacks by white supremacists and Islamist extremists. To do otherwise would be inconsistent policy, and at present, a grave harm to American citizens.
My article today is unusual in that there is none of my typical religious deliberation. The reason is I believe that when churches are burned and my brothers and sisters in Christ are murdered, then appealing to the authority of the Church and her teachings to persuade the audience to despise such abominable methods is fruitless. What appeals can I make as a Christian to stop these evil acts, to raise awareness of the evil mindsets of racism and bigotry that lead to this terrorism? Perhaps prayer is all I can do as a believer—but as an American, I have other options. When I was on active duty in the Marines, I did intelligence work for five years of the Global War on Terror. The threat of terrorism hung over us all every day. I know what terrorism looks like. I know it when I see it, and I see it murdering innocents and burning churches in the South.
I also know that when terrorists attack, the United States responds swiftly and forcefully. So I will try a different tact. I appeal to our policy:
1. All terrorist acts are criminal and intolerable, whatever their motivation, and should be condemned.
2. The United States will support all lawful measures to prevent terrorism and bring those responsible to justice.
3. No concessions will be made to terrorist extortion, because to do so only invites more terrorist action.5
As an American, as a veteran, I demand the unequivocal denouncement of white supremacist attacks as acts of terrorism. Our politicians are swift to decry violence by foreign groups, as when ISIS members beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Egypt, yet when nine Christians are gunned down on American soil in an attack likewise motivated by ideology, I hear little more than mumbled condolences. Christian or not, I firmly believe this is a matter on which all Americans can—must—stand together and cry for justice.
3. David A. Graham, “Deadly American Extremism: More White Than Muslim.” The Atlantic, June 25, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/terrorism-threat/396749/
4. U.S. Marine Corps.
Photo: from Dylann Roof’s blog, “Last Rhodesian.”