Defining, identifying terrorism a blurry practice in U.S.

By Klarize Medenilla

Given the recent terrorist attacks in 2015, the fear of terrorist attacks has reemerged as a major global concern.

The San Bernardino attack on Dec. 2, which was reportedly influenced by the radical jihadi Islamic State group, or ISIS, is considered by many to be the “worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11,” and it was reported as such by the Los Angeles Times.

The San Bernardino attack has resurged the issue of terrorism on the homeland and has reignited conversations on national security, surveillance and immigration.

While the threat of homegrown terrorism in the United States has been provoked after the San Bernardino attacks, the U.S. has experienced an onslaught of large-scale and violent attacks in recent years.

This all begs the question, what is ” and is not ” classified as a “terrorist attack?”

The United Nations defines terrorism as crimes that instigate a widespread “state of terror in the general public” and are often committed with “political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic [and/or] religious” gains in mind, according to the UN’s website.

But the line between terrorism and other acts of violence are muddied. It has become increasingly common to peg race, ethnicity and/or religion as determinants of terrorism. Because of the growing influence of ISIS and other like radical groups, terrorism has more or less become synonymous with the Islamic religion.

A 2013 study from Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Americans do not think that the Islamic religion is likelier to encourage violence among believers than other religions. However, the same study reported that 58 percent of Americans think that the Muslim religion is more likely than others to encourage violence within its community.

Although terrorism is often recognized by a political, social or ideological agenda per the UN definition, some argue that terrorism should be identified by the violence alone and not necessarily by its motives.

Cal Poly Pomona student Farhan Ahmed identifies terrorism by the sheer act of violence “against innocent people” and that the underlying motives are not necessarily the determining factor.

“It shouldn’t be about the race, religion, how you look or how different you are,” said Ahmed, a fifth-year industrial engineer student and Muslim. “It comes down to the actual act of killing ” on a mass scale ” that’s terrorism.”

Terrorist attacks are often committed to call attention to the perpetrating party’s cause.

Radical jihadi groups like ISIS commit terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris or San Bernardino to call attention to their causes, which often includes anti-West sentiment and a claimed devotion to Islam.

In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed seven people in Isla Vista, California during an attack near UC Santa Barbara. It was later reported that Rodger felt hostility towards women and targeted them for the attack.

Most recently, 21-year-old Dylann Roof was suspected of killing nine people during a prayer service at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Shortly after the incident, it was reported that Roof expressed allegiance to neo-Nazism and white supremacy. Consequently, many interpreted the Charleston attack as a racially charged attack.

However, these acts are widely not described as terrorist attacks despite their specific agendas and motivations.

Historically, the U.S. has used the term terrorism “geo-politically” or to describe the rest of the world’s “episodes of violence,” particularly involving the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and South Asia, according to Jack Fong, associate professor at CPP’s Department of Psychology and Sociology.

Once a Muslim, or alternatively someone of Arab descent, commits a terrorist act, the blame often shifts to the entire culture rather than the small group of people who orchestrated the attack. But when a non-Muslim or non-Arab American commits a violent attack on a mass scale in the U.S., the blame becomes “individualized,” said Fong.

Oftentimes, perpetrators such as Roof and Rodger are referred to as “lone wolves,” which individualizes their actions, said Fong. In other words, their acts are perceived as isolated incidents rather than events that exemplify the long string of violent culture in the U.S.

The application of this phenomenon to non-Muslim or non-Arab American perpetrators is so common because many Americans are uncomfortable addressing the underlying issue, which is that these attacks are not individualized events, said Fong.

It narrows the case enough so that it is believed that these perpetrators come from the margins of society, rather than the idea that they are products of a society that has motivated violent behavior.

“In America we don’t want to use that term [terrorism] to describe people in our population that [commit mass acts of violence] because it’s somewhat of a self-scolding process, and it forces Americans to finally admit that we have issues, so it’s much easier to look at the term terrorism geopolitically, away and far from us,” said Fong.

However, the definition of terrorism is slowly changing and Fong theorizes that as time goes on, Americans will begin to slowly apply the term to describe all acts of mass violence, not just those perpetuated by Muslims and Arabs, and there are a few instances that support this theory.

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh was labeled an act of “domestic terrorism.” Most recently, political leaders have also categorized the attack at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Nov. 27 as a domestic terrorist attack.

“As the years go by, I think the word terrorism will be more fairly used, but as of now, with our fixation of geo-politics, it still remains an outside-in application,” said Fong.

Terror suspects

Courtesy of Charleston County Sheriff’s Office & YouTube

Terror suspects

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