Our reluctance to label domestic terrorists

Published 4:14 pm Sunday, June 18, 2017

As America reels from the news of the Congressional Republican baseball team shooting, some are loudly resisting attempts to label the shooter a terrorist.  And that’s a characteristic of Americans: an unwillingness to label domestic terrorists as such.

The massacre of worshippers at a South Carolina church, the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) in Tucson, the stabbing of two Good Samaritans standing up for Muslim girls being bullied, a gun rampage on a Planned Parenthood Clinic, the Ft. Lauderdale airport shooting, and now the Congressional GOP baseball shooting are all are terror attacks.  But the media and even those in politics seem wary of labeling them as such, unless the person come from another country or has a Muslim sounding name. 

There’s already some speculation that the shooter must have had some sort of mental illness, according to a columnist with the Washington Examiner.  Another HuffPost writer warned against a rush to judge the assailant claims the Gabby Giffords shooter was motivated by dreams, not politics, relying almost exclusively on an interview with the shooter’s friend, instead of evidence showing that the shooter stalked Giffords, planned the attack, was much more politically active than some reporters were willing to conclude.  Let’s not be naïve: Loughner showed up to a political rally and fired 31 times at a political target and that he kept a letter from in a safe; he didn’t just wander up to six random shoppers in a Publix in a dream-like sleepwalk.  Even the interview with the friend revealed the shooter’s belief in government manipulation. Of the Oregon train attacker, law enforcement was reluctant to call it terrorism, floating the idea of mental illness or drugs or alcohol, despite the clear political and social motives.

There are several reasons for this. First, some of it is politics.  If you’re a liberal, you don’t want people thinking a liberal could do this to conservatives. Conservatives don’t want people thinking a conservative could kill liberals. And the Congressional GOP baseball shooter expressed hatred of Trump and Clinton. Mental illness is a politically palatable excuse, even as we see a few extremists on both sides use violence that deliberately targets politics.

Second, we don’t want to think the person right next door is capable of this, a frightening notion. 

It’s more comforting to think that only Middle Easterners do this, which explains the shock of people who know the killer, saying they never believed it was possible, even as law enforcement uncovers a distinctly disturbing pattern frequently associated with lone wolf terrorism.

But here’s the FBI definition of terrorism: “The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  And that’s what each of these cases includes.  The attack is violent and the targets are political, as are the objectives of the attackers. 

These attacks are premeditated, well-planned, where the attacker knows who the victims are.

Ironically, the attack occurred on the same day as the House of Representatives was going to take up a bill that would remove all restrictions on silencers (written in 1934 to protect police officers), get rid of extra background checks, and make it easier to purchase a firearm (SHARE Act).  The shooting canceled the hearing.  For those with a “Back the Blue” sign: see what your local police officer thinks of facing someone with a silencer and making it easier for criminals, terrorists and those with mental health issues to get a gun, as well as armor-piercing bullets.

Such a bill would have made it easier for these domestic terrorists to get to their targets, with even more casualties.  The Congressional baseball shooter could have killed the two officers with a silencer before massacring the GOP Representatives. 

It would have been easier for the Oregon train attacker to arm himself with an assault weapon instead of a knife.  The criminal past (like Hodgkinson’s) of many domestic terrorists would have limited their ability to easily get a firearm.  And even today, folks on the “No Fly List” can still procure a weapon.  One day, we’ll learn from our mistakes.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.