Who is a terrorist?

Last week, a lone gunman bought a ticket, entered the theater and opened fire on the audience, killing 12 people and wounding 58.   The media has focused on his red hair, and referred to him as a suspect, a shooter, a gunman.

Isn’t he a terrorist?

Dawinder S. Sidhu, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico, says we should focus on the act, not the ideology, and call him a terrorist right from the get-go.    I agree.

Labels are important.   They establish a context for how we process information and make sense of the senseless.   Labels serve as a cultural compass; setting the direction for how we should respond and react.

“Terrorism” and “terrorist” are especially pernicious labels.

Sidhu defines “terrorism” as a premeditated, random murder of innocent people that causes physical and psychological harm on a community, without regard to whether the perpetrator attempted to further a possible message.

Using that definition, the Aurora gunman is certainly  a terrorist.

Osama bin Laden was labeled a terrorist for planning and executing the killing of 1000s of Americans, and was probably planning to kill many more. George W. Bush was NOT labeled a terrorist, although he did the very same thing —– planning and executing the killing of 1000s of Iraqis.  Maybe neither man had blood directly on their hands, but they were both lethal and created terrorism based on the definition above.
The United States government considers Hamas a foreign terrorist organization.   (I’m still looking to see if the US has an operative definition for terrorism.)    Of course, Israel is not on the State Department’s  list.
If we look at actions, and not ideology, to determine who or which organizations or what countries use acts of terrorism, then Israel (and specifically the Israeli Defense Forces) clearly makes the grade.
It is time to call a “spade a spade” and that’s why I like the definition of “terrorism” that this UNM law professor has come up with.   It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian, Muslim, or Jew  ……. the act of terrorism governs the definition; not who the perpetrator might be.   It is more intellectually honest.


Filed under Hamas, Israel, Israel Defense Forces

3 responses to “Who is a terrorist?

  1. To illustrate the point that labels are so critical for shaping public opinion, watch these two very different descriptions of terrorists.

    The first video is Netanyahu speaking on FOX News about Israel’s action in Gaza at the beginning of its Operation Cast Lead.

    And this second video represents the Palestinians’ perspective on who is the terrorist. A hip hop song.

    The international reaction to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead is summarized here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_reaction_to_the_Gaza_War

    Israel and the US have generally been successful with their public relations campaign to label Palestinians as terrorists, justifying Israel’s actions in the OPT (occupied Palestinian territories. But that began to change after Operation Cast Lead. The world, I think, has begun to look past the labels and reflect on actions.

  2. Good point, but isn’t “terror” in the eye of the beholder?
    Those theater-goers certainly experienced a moment of terror in Aurora. Palestinians living in Gaza experienced 22 days of terror as the IDF carried out its Operation Cast Lead (12/08 – 1/09). Iraqis surely experienced terror during George W. Bush’s “Shock and Awe” campaign and after. How can we label a suicide bombing terrorism, without acknowledging our own acts of terror?

  3. T Lucero

    Hmmmm. I thought terrorism was specifically meant to spread terror. I thought a suicide bomber who steps onto a bus might want to kill as many Israeli tourists as possible, but ALSO wants to make Israelis and westerners scared to visit that country again. Whereas it appears the Aurora shooter was “just” an unstable guy who ignored the latter idea. Great article, regardless 😉

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