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When should a shooting really be called ‘terrorism’?

Shyanne Bryant, from left, Makayla Bryant, Keaton Dontanville and Caiden Dontanville attend a vigil held on the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs for those killed in last week's shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic. (Christian Murdock/the Gazette via AP)
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There’s a vocabulary we use to describe the type of people who commit mass shootings in America. Many of these people are described as adrift or alienated. Many are mentally unstable. Many are loners, others simply quiet and polite.

But only some of these people are described as terrorists.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have used the term "terrorist" mostly to refer to acts committed by Islamist militant groups, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But amid what feels like a surge of gun violence in the United States, in all kinds of locations and for all kinds of reasons, there's a growing debate over whether the term should also be used to talk about events closer to home.

What motivated Robert Dear, who is now charged with first-degree murder in the killing of a police officer and two civilians at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday, is officially unclear. While abortion opponents cite alternative explanations, abortion-rights activists describe Dear as being driven by a zealous, and perhaps religious, opposition to abortion and an admiration of violent antiabortion groups.

A law enforcement official has said that Dear uttered the phrase “no more baby parts” after his arrest, apparently a reference to video clips about donated tissue from aborted fetuses (clips that Planned Parenthood says misrepresent their practices). Furthermore, religious statements online, linked to an e-mail address that people close to Dear say is his, suggest that he held extreme Christian views.

The case of Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, who killed 14 people and wounded 17 in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday, may be clearer. The FBI said Dec. 4 that it is investigating the attack as "an act of terrorism." Law enforcement officials have told The Post that Farook was in contact with a person of interest with possible ties to terrorism.

The difference a definition makes

Whether mass shootings qualify as terrorism depends on the definitions you use.

Terrorism can be defined in multiple ways, and often has murky boundaries. The FBI defines domestic terrorism broadly, as an act that is dangerous to human life and intended to either intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence a government policy by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of the government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.

U.S. law defines domestic terrorism even broader, with the actions just having to “appear to have been intended” to intimidate or to coerce people.

If Dear's goal was to terrify and intimidate abortion supporters, the Planned Parenthood shootings could be said to fit this definition.

But whether authorities actually prosecute murderers as terrorists is often a practical matter, says Peter Bergen, the director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation. "There are quite a lot of political acts of violence in this country that aren’t treated as terrorism because from a prosecutorial point of view, it may complicate matters."

For example, authorities chose to charge Dylann Roof, who killed nine African Americans in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., with a federal hate crime, in addition to nine counts of murder at the state level. Attorney General Loretta Lynch responded to criticism that Roof should have been charged as a domestic terrorist by saying that hate crimes in the United States "are the original domestic terrorism."

Bergen adds that it can be hard to make a case for terrorist activity if someone isn't acting on behalf of a group that the United States has officially designated as terrorist organization.

David Sterman, a senior program associate at New America’s International Security Program, says that the question of whether someone is legally considered a terrorist is distinct from whether they should politically be considered one. The legal statutes that govern terrorism mostly arose after, and in response to, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and have traditionally been used for cases dealing with Islamist militants.

Furthermore, it's questionable whether the legal infrastructure set up for prosecuting foreign terrorism organizations would be useful in battling domestic terrorism — or whether the American public would want this. The prosecution of more Americans for terrorism might provoke a strong reaction from civil libertarians.

Other definitions of terrorism — for example, a well-known seven-part definition from political scientist Louise Richardson — present a higher bar.

According to Richardson, terrorism has to be politically inspired, and it has to involve violence or the threat of it. Its point is to send a message, and it typically aims at symbolic targets. It's an act of sub-state groups, not states. Its targets are not the same as its audience. And it deliberately targets civilians.

As Richardson's definition suggests, some of the controversy hinges on how important a person's connection to a terrorist organization really is.

There is clearly something different about an individual taking it upon themselves to commit a violent act alone, versus being part of an organized conspiracy.

Yet merely being a loner doesn't necessarily disqualify someone from being a terrorist. As Mark Pitcavage, director of the  Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, writes in a recent study, some extremist groups promote this type of decentralized, "lone wolf" activity because it is more difficult for authorities to detect and prevent.

While Dear appears to have admired violent antiabortionists, no links to such groups have yet been revealed, and some say the Planned Parenthood killings are better described as that of a mentally unhinged murderer than the kind of violent and symbolic political action typically recognized as terror. And it's not clear how symbolic the shooter's actions were meant to be; perhaps his primary goal was killing people, not sending a message.

Does 'terrorist' have a hidden meaning?

Some writers — like University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler, writing for The Washington Post's PostEverything — argue that the words we use to talk about different crimes reveal our – perhaps subconscious — prejudices. If Dear were a Muslim, he would readily be labeled a terrorist; if he were black, he might be called a "thug." But since he is white, he is labeled a "lone wolf" with a "troubled history," and his crime described as an isolated incident or an outlier, they say.

"The very headlines used for this individual, the focus on how much of a loner he was ... those are not the sorts of words used with Muslim terrorism defendants," says Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology and a Middle East specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "And they suggest that the individual is being treated as not representative of some larger community, but as an outlier and a fringe element."

The debate has broader implications. Some see it is one instance of the American public and media's tendency to overlook the threat of right-wing extremism, which is, by several accounts, more dangerous to Americans than militant Islam.

While most Americans seem more worried about a Paris-style attack by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or their affiliates, data from the International Security Program at the New America Foundation suggests that terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists have more people in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, than attacks by Islamist militant groups have.

Right-wing extremists, a category that includes white supremacists and anti-government fanatics, have killed 48 people since 9/11, compared with 45 killed by Islamist militants, according to the database. These figures, which were updated Dec. 3, included the Colorado Springs shooting and the San Bernardino shooting.

The views of law enforcement officials appear to echo these findings. A survey of 382 U.S. law enforcement agencies, led by David Schanzer at Duke University, shows that they see anti-government violent extremists as a significantly larger threat than radical Muslims.

Of the officials surveyed, 75 percent named anti-government terrorism as one of the top three threats in their jurisdiction, while only 39 percent said the same for al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations.

New America decided to include the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting in their database of right-wing attacks, because the suspect seemed to have a political motivation.

Yet Bergen of New America adds that a lot of the decisions about which incidents to classify as terrorism are judgement calls that involve determining whether people are really politically motivated or whether they are just "losers who wanted to be the heroes of their own story."

“There’s a wonderful quote from Immanuel Kant: From the crooked timber of humanity, not a straight thing is made," Bergen says. "It would be great if people fit conveniently into the pigeon holes that you created for them. But they don’t."

Note: We've updated the data from New America to include the shooting deaths in San Bernardino, Calif. 

See also:

Civilian victims identified in Planned Parenthood shooting

Why the Paris attacks could mark the beginning of the end for ISIS

How the Islamic State makes its money