What Is, and What Isn’t, Terrorism

Sadly, France is no stranger to terrorism.

Long before the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, there was la terreur from September 1793 to July 1794. This period after the French Revolution, also known as the Reign of Terror, was characterized by tens of thousands of politically-motivated executions by guillotine and other means. The tactic of employing violence and fear to try to influence people’s behavior has, of course, been used by governments and other groups for millennia, probably most of human existence. But this period in France’s history is where the term terrorism, as we use it today, originated.

In the U.S. our current legal definitions of terrorism stipulate that a crime is terrorism if it “appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” The key defining characteristics of terrorism in U.S. law are that the intent of the crime is to influence, intimidate, coerce, or affect. French law has a somewhat different definition of terrorism that encompasses crimes done with the intent of “seriously disturbing public order through intimidation or terror.”

Under both the U.S. and French definitions – and most other legal definitions – the intent of the crime is one of the defining factors of terrorism. In the case of the recent attack in Nice, so far, it seems there has been no concrete information about the attacker’s intent, which makes it difficult to see how this can be definitively categorized as terrorism at this stage. But it has been. News outlets around the world have labeled the attack as terrorism; French President Francoise Hollande described it as a terror attack; and the White House press release about the attack referred to “what appears to be a horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France”.

The fact that ISIS retroactively took credit for the attack does not actually give us any real information about the premeditated intent of the attacker or clarify the attack in legal terms at all. Especially since law enforcement still has not found any pre-attack ties between the attacker and ISIS or any other group.

There may be a few reasons why everyone is so quick to call this terrorism. The large death toll, cruelty, and total disregard for human life are characteristics we justifiably associate with terrorism, as are the public nature of the crime and the choice to attack during a holiday celebrating freedom. But it also seems that the attacker being Muslim has played a role in the widespread decision to call this terrorism before all the facts are in.

Other attacks, especially in the U.S., have not been generally characterized as terrorism. For instance, recent attacks by non-Muslims targeting African Americans in Church, or abortion providers, were labeled as terrorism only intermittently in the media, and did not result in terrorism charges against the attackers. In contrast, the attack on an office party by one of the company’s employees and another person, both of whom were Muslim, in San Bernardino last year was widely reported as terrorism. As was the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 and, in that case, the attacker, who was Muslim, did face terrorism charges. All four of these cases seem to fit the legal definition of terrorism but seem to be treated very differently by the press and, possibly, by the legal system.

These are just four anecdotal examples and there is a chance that a detailed data analysis of headlines and court cases would reveal that there is not a bias towards labeling, and charging, crimes committed by Muslims as terrorism more frequently than we do crimes committed by non-Muslims; however, what seems more likely is that, in the U.S., in particular, and in Europe, we have let recent acts of terrorism by groups claiming ties to Islam to cloud our usage of this term. Assuming a connection between terrorism and Islam, even when there is not yet evidence to suggest a connection exists, and failing to call crimes terrorism if they are not committed by Muslims is the kind of prejudice and divisiveness that terrorist groups crave.

This kind of misuse of the term terrorism not only undermines our values and ignores our legal definition of the word, it is also a form of cultural amnesia. Most of the population should be able to remember a time not too long ago when the term terrorism brought to mind the Irish Republican Army or the Basque separatist group ETA, neither of which have anything to do with Islam. If we eventually want to have any hope of ending terrorism, Islamic or otherwise, we need to have a clear and accurate understanding of what we’re trying to end and that means using the term terrorism with gravity and accuracy.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in all types of policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm.