Was it Tragedy in Tucson? Or Terror?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

January 14, 2011

When Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and then began firing into a crowd gathered in a grocery story parking lot in Tucson, was it tragedy? Or was it terrorism?

Most news outlets have gone with “Tragedy in Tucson,” not asking whether the shootings were a terrorist act. Some government officials, however, are at least raising the issue. FBI Director Robert Mueller has not ruled out charging Loughner with terrorism, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton referred to the shooting when speaking in Abu Dhabi last week. She said that “we have extremists in my country” and urged countries around the world to cooperate against violence.

Terrorism is like pornography – people know it when they see it. One of the modern pioneers of the study of terrorism, Brian Jenkins, once wryly observed: “Terrorism is what the bad guys do.” This notion still holds true, and the result is both the overuse and the underuse of the “terrorist” label.

Getting it wrong is risky. One of the first Sunni-jihadist-linked attacks in the United States was the 1990 murder of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League. El Sayyid Nosair was charged with the murder, but the attack was treated as a simple crime, and Nosair escaped conviction. He went on to try to kill thousands of people as part of the 1993 attempt to bomb the World Trade Center.

An obscure Saudi named Osama bin Laden helped pay for Nosair’s legal defense in the Kahane trial, but the narrow focus on the crime led prosecutors to ignore the broader conspiracy of which the defendant was a part. Nosair was later convicted in the World Trade Center bombing on charges that included “seditious conspiracy” and racketeering, legal tools that prosecutors have used to go after terrorists. The conspiracy in this case included the Kahane murder. It was only after terrorism came into play that Nosair met justice.

The overuse of the “terrorism” label is even more dangerous. Terrorist attacks, by design, foster fear, and if we blame terrorists whenever blood spills, we artificially make the perpetrators stronger. A terrorism charge also brings broader national security concerns to any act of violence, possibly leading to more restrictions on civil liberties. And while foreign terrorists unite Americans in defiance, political violence at home can divide us. Already both pro- and anti-gun voices are lining up to spin Loughner’s alleged deeds, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has accused her political opponents of manufacturing a “blood libel” against her with criticism of some of her rhetoric. In this climate, saying that Loughner is a terrorist implies that the pro-gun side is not simply wrong, but moreover a threat to the security of the United States.

In an era when racial profiling has become part of the terrorism debate, the label also may come more easily when the alleged attacker conforms to common prejudices about what a terrorist looks like. Suppose Loughner had a Muslim-sounding name, even though he acted alone and had a history of mental illness. What might we be saying then?

To fight terrorism, we have to understand it, and to understand it, we must know what it is and what it isn’t. That’s why experts have worked hard to define it. Analysts, led by my colleague Bruce Hoffman, have laid out criteria to judge whether an act of violence should be called terrorism. Although there is no consensus, common factors include: 1. Was the motive political? 2. Did the attacker seek to influence a broader audience? 3. Did it involve an organized group (not a lone wolf)? 4. Did it target civilians? 5. Was it carried out by a non-state actor – that is, a person or persons outside the government?

Let’s start with a political motive, which is often what separates terrorism from straightforward crime. The guy who kills the clerk in a 7-Eleven robbery gone wrong is not politically motivated and thus not a terrorist. On the other hand, a political motive alone doesn’t merit the terrorist label. Some disturbed individuals or criminals do have political views and attack political targets, but calling them terrorists conflates madness with the calculated evil and broader ambitions of someone like bin Laden. John Hinckley Jr., who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, had a political target; he did not care about Reagan’s policies, though, but was trying to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Nor did Hinckley seek a broader psychological effect. He was not attempting to influence voters or otherwise intimidate or inspire. So the shooting of the ultimate political target was not terrorism.

Whether to include lone wolves is also tricky. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, did not belong to an organized group. Yet he swam in a larger sea of militia and right-wing radicalism, and while he did not receive assistance from these groups, they did inspire him. Similarly, Mohammed Bouyeri, who in 2004 killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and pinned a note to his victim claiming he’d acted in defense of Islam, is often referred to as a terrorist, even though he acted on his own. Like McVeigh, Bouyeri saw himself as a fighter for a bigger cause.

Terrorists take issue with the “non-state” consideration. They contend that placing a bomb in a marketplace is on the same moral plane as a military air strike that destroys the marketplace. To this we have an answer – military strikes that deliberately target civilians are war crimes, and while they are not always prosecuted, we have laws against them. Calling terrorism a war crime elevates terrorists to the status of legitimate combatants, giving them the standing they crave.

Perhaps the most complex issue involves who is a civilian. At first, this seems pretty clear: No soldiers were deployed in the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombs that go off in marketplaces in Iraq clearly seek to hit noncombatants, not warriors. Yet think about al-Qaeda’s attack in 2000 on the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. To most Americans, it looks, sounds and smells like terrorism. But the 17 sailors crewed a guided-missile-equipped destroyer – not exactly a pleasure boat. Their killers are America’s enemies, but the sailors were not civilians in the way that Giffords and those near her were. As one military student of mine put it, “I don’t want to get shot at, but I’d rather they go after me than some civilian at home.”

So is Loughner a terrorist? Allegedly, he used violence, he did not act on behalf of a state, and he struck at civilians. But then the ambiguities come in. It is not clear whether he wanted to influence a wider audience, and his alleged actions appear to have been taken alone.

The biggest reason to avoid labeling this clearly disturbed young man as a terrorist is his political agenda – or lack thereof. Through his YouTube video postings and in interviews with people who knew him, the portrait of Loughner that emerges is one of a man mouthing off at the government, declaring: “I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver!”

But he is more alienated poseur than true believer in any cause. He derides Giffords as “fake,” language more reminiscent of Holden Caulfield than Ayman al-Zawahiri. His behavior is reported as erratic. He warns about government mind control and seeks to live in his own dream world, which he believes he can manipulate like a character in “The Matrix.” His favorite books included “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto,” favorites of right- and left-wing terrorists, respectively. But even fanatics, not known for their intellectual depth, recognize that the two works don’t go together. One of Loughner’s friends declared that he had no political or ideological bent, likening him to the Joker in the most recent Batman movie: “There’s no rhyme or reason; he wants to watch the world burn.”

Americans are mystified and mourning after the shootings in Tucson a week ago. There’s no good way to explain why Loughner allegedly did what he did. But there is a way to categorize it: tragedy in Tucson, not terror.