Column: The importance of labeling domestic terrorism

Picture, for me, a terrorist.

What are they wearing? What do they look like? What language are they speaking? And, in more abstract terms, what are the strictly held beliefs that spur them to act in such a manner?

I have little doubt in my mind that you pictured something resembling this: A Middle Eastern man, likely a devout Muslim, with a full and wiry beard holding a Kalashnikov rifle

I cannot fault you for conjuring up this very constricted idea of what kind of person a terrorist is, and what his or her motivations are. After all, whenever a terrorist appears on television, in movies, or even on the nightly newsreels, they almost always adhere to this extraordinarily limited construction.

Terrorism extends well beyond the confines of Middle Eastern politics; it is a means of violence that comes comes in many forms and occurs in countries all around the world. Yet there is still a belief that it only occurs within the Muslim world, and that the holy scripture of Islam motivates all of these acts of incredible violence, a religion that seems so foreign to our western eyes.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that there is no consensus definition on what constitutes a terrorist act. It is something that changes with every country and every region. What loose definition experts can come to a consensus on is this: terrorism is premeditated, politically or religiously motivated violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually with the goal of influencing an audience. 

By this definition, terrorism is not something that is limited to the Middle East or even various regions of Africa. It is an act that knows no borders, and is ignorant of ethnicity and race. It will kill any and all in its path, innocent or not, for the sake of its misguided cause. It is violence that can be committed by anyone, anywhere. In fact, over the weekend, a terrorist attack occurred in our own backyard, but you would have been hard pressed to find anyone beyond a select few who were willing to name it as such.

Friday in Colorado Springs, a white Christian male named Robert Dear walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic and began shooting everyone in sight. Three people died, nine were injured. It was an act of extreme violence committed against innocents, and as we now know with his erroneous claim in his police interview that Planned Parenthood was selling “baby parts,” it was an act partly fueled by violent political rhetoric.

Something similar occurred many months ago, when a lone shooter, again a white male, walked into the Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston and killed nine churchgoers during a prayer service. The victims were black, and for that he killed them. The shooter wished to start a race war, and he was again partially motivated by the hateful rhetoric of the political fringes.

While seemingly carried out for different reasons, both of these acts of horrific violence have many things in common. They both were carried out with political motivations. They both count innocents among their dead and wounded. They both sought to influence a wider audience. To put it simply, they are both cases of domestic terrorism.

Even though both are such obvious examples of terrorism, you will find it difficult to pin down anyone in the national media, or government, who is willing to name it as such. There is a reason for this, and an ugly one at that. It does not fit the narrative. It does not prescribe to the simple image we have in our minds of a terrorist, of a young man with a foreign name and a foreign religion, and therefore it cannot be so.

But, it is. I ask that you do not fall into the simple trap they have laid for us, and know that terrorism is not something confined to one region, people or religion. A terrorist act can be committed anywhere, and by anyone. Know this, know that is true, and steel yourself against the fear and prejudice they try so very hard to instill in our hearts.

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