What hap­pened in Tuc­son was tragic — but was it ter­ror­ism?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY DANIEL L. BYMAN dlb32@ge­orge­town.edu Daniel Byman is a pro­fes­sor in the Se­cu­rity Stud­ies Pro­gram at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity and the re­search di­rec­tor of the Sa­ban Cen­ter for Mid­dle East Pol­icy at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. He is the author of the forth

When Jared Lee Lough­ner al­legedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords in the head and then be­gan fir­ing into a crowd gath­ered in a gro­cery story park­ing lot in Tuc­son, was it tragedy? Or was it ter­ror­ism?

Most news out­lets have gone with “ Tragedy in Tuc­son,” not ask­ing whether the shoot­ings were a ter­ror­ist act. Some govern­ment of­fi­cials, how­ever, are at least rais­ing the is­sue. FBI Di­rec­tor RobertMueller has not ruled out charg­ing Lough­ner with ter­ror­ism, and Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton re­ferred to the shoot­ing when speak­ing in Abu Dhabi last week. She said that “we have ex­trem­ists in my coun­try” and urged coun­tries around the world to co­op­er­ate against vi­o­lence.

Ter­ror­ism is like pornog­ra­phy — peo­ple know it when they see it. One of the mod­ern pi­o­neers of the study of ter­ror­ism, Brian Jenk­ins, once wryly ob­served: “ Ter­ror­ism is what the bad guys do.” This no­tion still holds true, and the re­sult is both the overuse and the un­der­use of the “ ter­ror­ist” la­bel.

Get­ting it wrong is risky. One of the first Sunni-ji­hadist-linked attacks in the United States was the 1990 murder of ex­trem­ist rabbi Meir Ka­hane, who founded the Jewish De­fense League. El Sayyid No­sair was charged with the murder, but the at­tack was treated as a sim­ple crime, and No­sair es­caped con­vic­tion. He went on to try to kill thou­sands of peo­ple as part of the 1993 at­tempt to bomb the World Trade Cen­ter.

An ob­scure Saudi named Osama bin Laden helped pay for No­sair’s le­gal de­fense in the Ka­hane trial, but the nar­row fo­cus on the crime led pros­e­cu­tors to ig­nore the broader con­spir­acy of which the de­fen­dant was a part. No­sair was later con­victed in the World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing on charges that in­cluded “sedi­tious con­spir­acy” and rack­e­teer­ing, le­gal tools that pros­e­cu­tors have used to go af­ter ter­ror­ists. The con­spir­acy in this case in­cluded the Ka­hane murder. It was only af­ter ter­ror­ism came into play that No­sair met jus­tice.

The overuse of the “ ter­ror­ism” la­bel is even more dan­ger­ous. Ter­ror­ist attacks, by de­sign, fos­ter fear, and if we blame ter­ror­ists when­ever blood spills, we ar­ti­fi­cially make the per­pe­tra­tors stronger. A ter­ror­ism charge also brings broader na­tional se­cu­rity con­cerns to any act of vi­o­lence, pos­si­bly lead­ing to more re­stric­tions on civil lib­er­ties. And while for­eign ter­ror­ists unite Amer­i­cans in de­fi­ance, po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence at home can di­vide us. Al­ready both pro-and anti-gun voices are lin­ing up to spin Lough­ner’s al­leged deeds, and for­mer vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sarah Palin has ac­cused her po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents of man­u­fac­tur­ing a “ blood li­bel” against her with crit­i­cism of some of her rhetoric. In this cli­mate, say­ing that Lough­ner is a ter­ror­ist im­plies that the pro-gun side is not sim­ply wrong, but more­over a threat to the se­cu­rity of the United States.

In an era when racial pro­fil­ing has be­come part of the ter­ror­ism de­bate, the la­bel also may come more eas­ily when the al­leged at­tacker con­forms to com­mon prej­u­dices about what a ter­ror­ist looks like. Sup­pose Lough­ner had a Mus­lim-sound­ing name, even though he acted alone and had a his­tory of mental ill­ness. What might we be say­ing then?

To fight ter­ror­ism, we have to un­der­stand it, and to un­der­stand it, we must know what it is and what it isn’t. That’s why ex­perts have worked hard to de­fine it. An­a­lysts, led by my col­league Bruce Hoff­man, have laid out cri­te­ria to judge whether an act of vi­o­lence should be called ter­ror­ism. Al­though there is no con­sen­sus, com­mon fac­tors in­clude: 1. Was the mo­tive po­lit­i­cal? 2. Did the at­tacker seek to in­flu­ence a broader au­di­ence? 3. Did it in­volve an or­ga­nized group (not a lone wolf)? 4. Did it tar­get civil­ians? 5. Was it car­ried out by a non-state ac­tor — that is, a per­son or per­sons out­side the govern­ment?

Let’s start with a po­lit­i­cal mo­tive, which is of­ten what sep­a­rates ter­ror­ism from straight­for­ward crime. The guy who kills the clerk in a 7-Eleven rob­bery gone wrong is not po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and thus not a ter­ror­ist. On the other hand, a po­lit­i­cal mo­tive alone doesn’t merit the ter­ror­ist la­bel. Some dis­turbed in­di­vid­u­als or crim­i­nals do have po­lit­i­cal views and at­tack po­lit­i­cal tar­gets, but call­ing them ter­ror­ists con­flates mad­ness with the cal­cu­lated evil and broader am­bi­tions of some­one like bin Laden. John Hinckley Jr., who tried to kill Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, had a po­lit­i­cal tar­get; he did not care about Rea­gan’s poli­cies, though, but was try­ing to im­press the ac­tress Jodie Fos­ter. Nor did Hinckley seek a broader psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect. He was not at­tempt­ing to in­flu­ence vot­ers or oth­er­wise in­tim­i­date or in­spire. So the shoot­ing of the ul­ti­mate po­lit­i­cal tar­get was not ter­ror­ism.

Lough­ner called Gif­fords “fake,” lan­guage more rem­i­nis­cent of Holden Caulfield than Ay­man alZawahiri.

Whether to in­clude lone wolves is also tricky. Ti­mothy McVeigh, the Ok­la­homa City bomber, did not be­long to an or­ga­nized group. Yet he swam in a larger sea of mili­tia and right-wing rad­i­cal­ism, and while he did not re­ceive as­sis­tance from these groups, they did in­spire him. Sim­i­larly, Mo­hammed Bouy­eri, who in 2004 killed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and pinned a note to his vic­tim claim­ing he’d acted in de­fense of Is­lam, is of­ten re­ferred to as a ter­ror­ist, even though he acted on his own. Like McVeigh, Bouy­eri saw him­self as a fighter for a big­ger cause.

Ter­ror­ists take is­sue with the “non­state” con­sid­er­a­tion. They con­tend that plac­ing a bomb in a mar­ket­place is on the same moral plane as a mil­i­tary air strike that de­stroys the mar­ket­place. To this we have an an­swer — mil­i­tary strikes that de­lib­er­ately tar­get civil­ians are war crimes, and while they are not al­ways pros­e­cuted, we have laws against them. Call­ing ter­ror­ism a war crime el­e­vates ter­ror­ists to the sta­tus of le­git­i­mate com­bat­ants, giv­ing them the stand­ing they crave.

Per­haps the most com­plex is­sue in­volves who is a civil­ian. At first, this seems pretty clear: No sol­diers were de­ployed in the twin tow­ers on Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombs that go off in mar­ket­places in Iraq clearly seek to hit non­com­bat­ants, not war­riors. Yet think about al-Qaeda’s at­tack in 2000 on the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. To most Amer­i­cans, it looks, sounds and smells like ter­ror­ism. But the 17 sailors crewed a guided-mis­sile-equipped de­stroyer — not ex­actly a plea­sure boat. Their killers are Amer­ica’s en­e­mies, but the sailors were not civil­ians in the way that Gif­fords and those near her were. As one mil­i­tary stu­dent of mine put it, “I don’t want to get shot at, but I’d rather they go af­ter me than some civil­ian at home.”

So is Lough­ner a ter­ror­ist? Al­legedly, he used vi­o­lence, he did not act on be­half of a state, and he struck at civil­ians. But then the am­bi­gu­i­ties come in. It is not clear whether he wanted to in­flu­ence a wider au­di­ence, and his al­leged ac­tions ap­pear to have been taken alone.

The biggest rea­son to avoid la­bel­ing this clearly dis­turbed young man as a ter­ror­ist is his po­lit­i­cal agenda— or lack thereof. Through his YouTube video post­ings and in in­ter­views with peo­ple who knewhim, the por­trait of Lough­ner that emerges is one of a man mouthing off at the govern­ment, declar­ing: “I won’t pay debt with a cur­rency that’s not backed by gold and sil­ver!”

But he is more alien­ated poseur than true be­liever in any cause. He de­rides Gif­fords as “fake,” lan­guage more rem­i­nis­cent ofHolden Caulfield than Ay­man al-Zawahiri. His be­hav­ior is re­ported as er­ratic. He warns about govern­ment mind con­trol and seeks to live in his own dream world, which he be­lieves he can ma­nip­u­late like a char­ac­ter in “ The Ma­trix.” His fa­vorite books in­cluded “Mein Kampf” and “ The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo,” fa­vorites of right-and left­wing ter­ror­ists, re­spec­tively. But even fa­nat­ics, not known for their in­tel­lec­tual depth, rec­og­nize that the two works don’t go to­gether. One of Lough­ner’s friends de­clared that he had no po­lit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal bent, liken­ing him to the Joker in the most re­cent Bat­man movie: “ There’s no rhyme or rea­son; he wants to watch the world burn.”

Amer­i­cans are mys­ti­fied and mourn­ing af­ter the shoot­ings in Tuc­son a week ago. There’s no good way to ex­plain why Lough­ner al­legedly did what he did. But there is a way to cat­e­go­rize it: tragedy in Tuc­son, not ter­ror.


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