Terrorism and Semantics



One of the terms that has become increasingly politicized in the past several years is the word terrorism. The simple dictionary definition is: “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” The FBI gets more specific:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. (fbi.gov)

There has been some dispute, usually falling along political party lines, as to whether recent acts of violence in the United States constitute terrorism. Just yesterday, a man armed with a knife attacked people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Was he a terrorist or just a crazy man with a knife? Despite his reference to Allah and apparent Muslim affiliation, it’s difficult to tell what his motivations were. An ISIS-controlled media source called him a “soldier” for their cause. But was he truly one of theirs, or were they just claiming credit for inspiring him to the heinous act?

You might say it doesn’t really matter what you call it. Violence is violence, and the dead or injured don’t really care what the terminology is. But the fact is, calling a bombing, shooting, or other act of violence terrorism affects foreign and immigration policy, as well as attitudes towards American Muslims. So it is imperative that we neither jump to hasty conclusions without clear evidence of a terrorist connection nor ignore the possibility of terrorist cells operating within our borders.

Mayor Bill De Blasio was criticized for hesitating to call the NYC bombings, which occurred on the same day as the Minnesota incident, terrorism. It seems more likely now, in view of the facts coming to light, that the suspect had become radicalized. Until more investigating is done, however, we won’t know the extent of the suspect’s involvement in terrorism. More importantly, though, there was a hue and cry over De Blasio’s restraint on the matter, and I find that disturbing.

History has shown that public fear often gives way to an abrogation of civil rights for members of the ethnic or religious group under suspicion. At the extreme is the extermination of millions of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. But even the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the persecution of suspected Communists during the Cold War point to a dangerous willingness to act on half truths and suspicions rather than facts.

It’s not political correctness that makes leaders cautious about labeling events terrorism; it’s prudence. Law enforcement officials were able to apprehend the NYC bombing suspect within 24 hours of the incident. That is both impressive and reassuring. Let’s allow them to do their jobs thoroughly before rushing to judgment. I believe such restraint will make for a much more fair and effective war on terror.


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