When is an Act of Violence Terrorism?

Like most definitions in US politics, whether someone believes an act of violence is terrorism depends on who you’re asking.



Early Monday morning, federal authorities had made the judgement call the horrific Vegas Concert Shooting that had taken place the night before, was at that time, not an act of terrorism. This as you may have guessed, had caused some to question the decision on Twitter.




It’s not surprising that many of us, including our editor, had questioned validity of this not being a terrorist attack after 50+ people were killed and over 150 injured by what many are calling the worst mass shooting in modern American history. But that got us thinking; is there any real substantial definition in calling an act of violence a terrorist attack?


Is categorizing a violent act as terrorism just subjective? Or are their guidelines that it has to follow? Or maybe it’s just a giant judgement call? Hell, does it really matter that we call something a terrorist attack?


We decided to find out.



How Do Government Officials Label a “Terrorist Attack?”


For government officials, “terrorism” is less about the violent act and more about its intent. Federal law specifically dictates that a terrorist attack is, “the unlawful use of force and 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.” In layman’s terms, whether an act of violence affects two or two-hundred people, it only depends on the individual’s intent. As you may guess, for government officials, calling an act of violence a “terrorist attack” is primarily a judgement call.


Sometimes for government officials, an act of terrorism can be easy to determine. If the attacks are brought on by someone who’s sole purpose is to cause chaos and fear among the general public through their act of violence – especially if the perpetrator is part of a fringe extremist group like Muslim Extremism or White Nationalism – it’s very easy to count that as an act of terrorism. However, in cases like last weekend’s Vegas Concert Shooting where, as of this writing, the real intent of the shooter is still primarily unknown (and may never be known because he was killed during the incident), it’s hard to decipher what their intent truly was. Because of that, it makes it harder for government officials to call it an act of terrorism.


So why does this all matter? While it may look like this debate is nothing more than semantics, in reality it matters because it changes how the federal government treats the situation. For example, if the Vegas Concert Shooting is looked at as not a terrorist attack, then government officials would look at the incident very differently. That could mean everything from ignoring certain parts of the investigation to not using the full extent of federal resources. Which makes sense. If federal law enforcement looks at the Vegas Concert Shooting as a one off-incident, there’s a good chance that certain aspects of the case will be ignored.


For the federal government, terrorism has a specific definition – with distinct consequences – which is very different when it comes to the general discourse over whether an act of violence constitutes as terrorism, where that distinction becomes more subjective.



How the National Discourse Defines a Terrorist Act


When it comes to the media and the national conversation regarding if an attack is terrorism; definitions can get convoluted. Unlike how government officials use intent as their guiding factor of deciding on whether an attack is terrorism, it gets complicated when it comes to the public’s definition of terrorism. While the knee jerk reaction to this is that race and religion of the attacker define if the public believes an attack is terrorism, in reality, research has shown it’s more complicated than that.


A recent study by Connor Huff and Joshua D. Kertzer of Harvard found that while “social categorization” of the attacker played a huge factor in the public perceiving an attack to be terrorism, the study also found other factors such as the type and severity of the attack also playing a major role in its classification. For example, violent acts like a bombing make it easier for the public to accept as a terrorist act, while something like a knife attack make it harder. Even though a case like the London Bridge attack in the UK – where the assailant was stabbing individuals after he had rammed them with his van – can be clearly defined as a terrorist attack. However, with all that said, the study found that framing of the attack is vital in deciding if the public perceives an attack being linked to terrorism; which in turn, makes the media a major actor in this discussion.


As for the media itself, it becomes a major crapshoot of how the media perceives a terrorist attack. The truth is, different media outlets report on attacks, like mass shootings, differently. A Fox News segment reporting on a terrorist attack would be different than say the PBS News Hour would. Studies have shown that this matters when it comes to defining a terrorist attack; specifically when it comes to how the media portrays Muslim attackers.


The media in general frames attacks by Muslim/Arabic/Islamic individuals as terrorist attacks more often than not. This goes even further by research showing that the media emphasizes political motivations of Muslim attackers, at times trumping other possible factors for violence like mental illness. In incidences like the Vegas Concert Shooting, where the attacker was identified as a White-American male, the media was shown to be hesitant in labeling the violent act as terrorism.


Holistically speaking, the media has to do a better job in categorizing an attack as terrorism. In most media reporting, categorizing a violent attack as terrorism becomes largely a subjective matter, when it should be less so. For the national discourse and the general public’s perception of terrorist attacks, framing the issue better would go a long way.



(Photo Credit: Google Images)


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