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When Is Mass Killing an Act of 'Terrorism'?


December 3, 2015
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

After at least 14 people were murdered and 17 wounded in San Bernardino by assailants armed with assault weapons, Assistant Director in Charge of the Los Angeles FBI Field Office David Bowditch told the press: "We do not know if this is a terrorist incident." How can this NOT be an act of terror? Here's how . . . .

Special to Environmentalist Against War

BERKELEY, Calif. (December 2, 2015) -- After at least 14 people were murdered and 17 wounded in San Bernardino by assailants armed with assault weapons, Assistant Director in Charge of the Los Angeles FBI Field Office David Bowditch told the press: "We do not know if this is a terrorist incident."

How can this NOT be an act of terror?

Here's how:

According to the U.S. Code (18 U.S.C. ยง 2331), it takes more than mass killing of unarmed citizens to constitute an act of terror. Under Federal law, "domestic terrorism" must "Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law" and meet three characteristics. First, an attack must appear "intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." The San Bernardino violence certainly qualifies on this point.

But now let's examine the other two requirements:

The slaughter of innocent civilians must also be intended to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" or designed to "affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."

In other words, it's not enough to kill innocent Americans: the act has to be accompanied by an intent to "send a message" to Washington -- or Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, or Paris.

(At the time if this writing, the background, ethnicity and motive of the attackers remains unknown but the fact that more than one person was involved signals that this was not the act of a single deranged mind but the product of mutual cooperation -- and this suggests a possible political motive.)

So the question becomes: Why would anyone wish to "influence the policy of a government"? Why would anyone want to "affect the conduct of a government"?

Most likely because that government has done something that has deeply angered the would-be attackers.

In other words, for an act of wanton slaughter to qualify as "terrorism" it has to be in retaliation for some provocative action or policy committed or imposed by a "government." It has to be an act of revenge. An act of retaliation.

So someone who murders people at a Planned Parenthood facility because of a twisted Christian conviction of "the sanctity of life" is not a terrorist.

Someone who storms into a crowded office after losing his job and opens fire on co-workers is not a terrorist.

Someone who plants a bomb in a mosque, church, or synagogue out of religious hatred is not a terrorist.

Someone who dons a hood and lynches a family out of racial hatred is not a terrorist.

The man who shot and killed a waitress in Wichita after she asked him to stop smoking is not a terrorist.

It's not terrorism unless a "government" is involved.

It's not terrorism unless a "government" feels it is being pressured to reconsider its policies.

It's not terrorism unless a "government" concludes that someone is attempting to "affect" its "conduct."

So terrorism (under the definition of Federal law) is not about dead civilians. It is all about a government maintaining its unhampered ability to impose sanctions, topple elected leaders, impose puppet regimes, and cross sovereign borders -- to engage in occupations and brutal foreign wars that claim thousands of innocent civilian lives -- without fear of being "influenced" or "affected."

This definition is a comfort to the National Rifle Association. Under the FBI's definition, angry and/or mentally unstable, white racist males who take it upon themselves to mass-murder family members and strangers, cannot be called "terrorists." The NRA cannot be accused of advocating the arming of potential "terrorists."

Unless, of course, your name is Cliven Bundy.

In April 2014, Nevada cattle rancher Bundy took issue with the Federal government's claim that he owed $1.2 million in unpaid fees for grazing his 500 cows on federal land.

Bundy definitely intended to "influence" and "affect" the government's "conduct" and he was willing to resort to armed violence to do so. Along with 400 armed supporters of a "citizens' militia," Bundy stared down the agents of the Bureau of Land Management. And Washington blinked.

Fortunately, no shots were fired.

In Bundy's case, the mere threat of terrorism (Note: it is a crime to point an armed weapon at a federal officer) appears to have won out. As The Guardian noted on June 1, 2015, more than a year since the headline-making confrontation, Bundy "has not seen a single federal official or vehicle on his 600,000-acre property, which sprawls 80 miles north of Las Vegas, and feels no pressure to pay a cent of the $1.2m."

If Bundy's showdown had resulted in bloodshed, he would have been labeled a "terrorist" under the definition of the US Code. But it is unlikely that we would be hearing the NRA placing that label on Bundy and his armed militia.

As America becomes increasingly plagued by the trauma of mass shootings, it is important to recognize where the real threats lie. When we hear the word "terrorists," we are supposed to think of people with foreign names, unfamiliar religions and ancient grudges. But, according to a study by The Guardian, Americans are 58 times more likely to be killed by police bullets than by a terrorist's bomb. (And, even Fox News admits the chances of an American being killed by a Christian conservative right-wing extremist are seven times greater than the odds of being killed by a Muslim jihadist.)

Gar Smith is co-founder of EAW, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth.

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