What is terrorism? This is a question that has been ever present since the 2001 9/11 attacks. And it has remained unanswered in any concrete way. It can involve one casualty or hundreds. At the same time, it can even involve 0 casualties. Terrorism can also utilize several different venues to make a statement. It can use suicide bombers, as seen in the Iraq conflict. It can also use biological and chemical agents, such as the 2001 Anthrax Mail attacks which killed 5 people. Terrorism can utilize a diverse number of tactics and venues to send its message across. Yet, it is still undefined.
Terrorism cannot be defined by number of dead, maimed, or negative effects it has created. It has also been shaped by the public’s changes of perception. For instance, the public of 1982 loved the actions of John Rambo in First Blood. He managed to evade capture of the US police and army using guerilla tactics that led to 1 officer’s death and several wounded police and soldiers. Yet, the reaction would be very different if a similar story were to occur in the post-9/11 setting. In many ways, terrorism is defined by the perceptions of the beholder. It’s knowing that something is a duck when you see it. But this could lead to its overuse or its mislabeling. It is a malleable term that is heavily influenced by the public’s biases.
On June 8th, 2014, Las Vegas was struck by what was undeniably an act of domestic terrorism. Soldo and Alyn Beck attacked LVPD officers after shouting something about a revolution. They attached a note claiming that the revolution had begun, attached Nazi symbols to the dead officers, and draped a Gadsden Flag (The “Don’t Tread on Me” Snake) over one of the dead bodies. While some researchers, such as John Schindler, who works at the Naval War College, and J.M. Berger, a domestic extremism expert, declared the attack as being terrorism, the media largely avoided the term. Yet why did they? The act fits the majority of terrorism definitions. It was an attack that sought to send a politicized message of fear. Some, such as the author of the article, would claim that it was the lack of any Islamic identifiers amongst the attackers that caused the media to avoid the term.
Our public perception of terrorism helps define it. We often view it as a violent, politically charged attack against Americans that was committed by an Islamic extremist. We also view that these attacks have been on the rise since 9/11. Yet, that would be false. Terrorism has actually been decreasing. There were 11 acts in 2011 in comparison to the 120 acts that were committed in 1975. Additionally, a large number of attacks have been carried about by homebred, apple pie eating Americans who have far-left/right tendencies as seen by the Oklahoma Bombings that injured 150 people. The politicization of attacks being a perquisite of terrorism is also up for debate. For instance, the DC Snipers were charged under Virginian Terrorism charges, yet their end goal was to receive 10 million dollars to stop their attacks.
The perception of terrorism and its definition is constantly in flux. It also reflects our eventual change from a Cold War viewpoint. It is undeniable that a large portion of NSC organizations still operate under some influence of its Cold War history. It is what causes us to invest more in spy satellites than in the HUMINT sources that are more effective in our global war against terrorism. Yet, the post-9/11 world has begun to edit facets of it. We now have a DHS. The FBI is finally beginning to embrace the technology it ignored in Spying Blind. The Military now has an updated COIN Manual.
The definition of Terrorism will probably never be concretely defined. It will always remain partially abstract. This will forever effect how the public and policymakers react to terroristic events. By understanding the malleability of the term, it is possible to see how and why government agencies and policies change to address it.