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Austin bomber: ‘Challenged young man’ or ‘terrorist’?

On March 21, law enforcement officials identified the suspected Austin bomber as Mark Anthony Conditt of Pflugerville, Tex. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

For weeks, the 23-year-old suspected bomber terrorized the city of Austin with a string of explosions that killed two and injured several others.

But should the bomber, identified by authorities as Mark Anthony Conditt, be called a terrorist?

In the hours after police cornered Conditt, who died after detonating explosives in his car Wednesday, the conversation surrounding the Austin bombings quickly turned to labels, language and race. As with other attacks in recent months and years, such as the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead, a debate soon began over whether to characterize the Austin bombings as acts of terrorism.

Authorities avoided using the “terrorist” label, instead describing Conditt — a white man — as a troubled person motivated by frustrations in his life.

Interim Austin police chief ­Brian Manley said Conditt made a 25-minute video “confession” on his cellphone explaining how he built seven explosive devices.

Austin bomber was frustrated with his life, authorities say

“Having listened to that recording, he does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate,” Manley said in a news conference Wednesday. “But instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”

Other officials also declined to tie the bombings to terrorism. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that there “is no apparent nexus to terrorism at this time.” Asked whether the suspect was a terrorist in an interview with Fox and Friends Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott darted around the label.

“The definition of a terrorist is more the mind-set of the person who committed the crime,” Abbott, a Republican, said. “Was his goal to terrorize, or did he have some other type of agenda? Obviously, there was terror.”

This hesitancy to describe the suspect as a terrorist angered many on social media who believed it presented a double standard. Would Conditt be characterized in the same way if he had been a person of color, such as a black or Muslim man?

“Once, before I die, I’d like to hear a cop or prosecutor declare — and mainstream media report — that the confession of a black- or brown-skinned suspect to a crime of violence is ‘the outcry of a very challenged young man, talking about challenges that led him to this point,’ ” tweeted David Simon, a writer and producer known for the television series “The Wire.”

“Murdering multiple people and being called ‘challenged’ is the height of white privilege,” tweeted comedian, actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani, who is of Pakistani heritage. “If this terrorist bomber was a brown guy, my mom wouldn’t be able to leave her house for a week.”

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, a politically charged term with usage often dependent on ideology or point of view. But the label is often used to describe the use of violence for political or ideological ends.

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as acts perpetrated by “individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” It provides the example of the June 2014 Las Vegas shooting, during which two police officers inside a restaurant were killed in an ambush-style attack committed by a married couple who held anti-government views.

The USA Patriot Act defines “domestic terrorism” as activities within the U.S. that involve acts dangerous to human life intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion,” or “to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

A similar debate took place in June, when a white man attacked congressional Republicans’ baseball practice just outside Washington, and again in August, when a man at a white supremacist demonstration allegedly drove into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring 19.

Trump has made a point to emphasize “radical Islamic terrorism.” In August, when a driver swerved into crowds in a deadly attack in Barcelona, Trump was quick to label it as a “terrorist attack” but that same week declined to assign the same label to the episode in Charlottesville.

As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake argued after the Las Vegas shooting, the debate centers on the intention of the attacker.

When Muslims commit terrorist attacks, it fits into a clear clash of civilizations that has been playing out for decades. It seems part of a broader war taking place not just in one country, but worldwide, and it aims to inflict — often successfully — fear of similar attacks in the future. Attacks like the ones on Charleston, Charlottesville and suburban Washington don’t so easily fit into a large-scale conflict, and the motives of the shooters (especially if they are dead) may be more complicated to ascertain.

Early in the investigation into the Austin bombings, officials said they were considering whether some of the victims were targeted because of their race. Package bombs were left in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods of East Austin, killing Anthony Stephan House, 39, a money manager, and Draylen Mason, a college-bound 17-year-old known for his passion for music. Both were African American. Another bomb severely injured Esperanza Herrera, a 75-year-old Hispanic woman.

Conditt’s motives remain unclear. He is known to have attended a Christian church, and he described himself on a class blog as conservative but “not that politically inclined.”

On Monday, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for the bombings to be classified as “ongoing terrorist attacks” and asked officials to determine whether the bombings are “ideologically or racially motivated.”

For some Austin residents, authorities’ hesitancy to describe the explosions as acts of terrorism was particularly infuriating and failed to recognize the extent to which the bombings paralyzed the city.

Yet for others, particularly right-wing commentators, the controversy Wednesday centered on the media’s focus on Conditt’s race.

“Ok so the Austin Bomber is a white guy, so what??” one Twitter user wrote. “Why are liberals and the media focusing on his race?”