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Is the Las Vegas mass murderer a “terrorist”? This question has been hotly debated in recent days, which is in many ways surprising given that there is a near consensus on a straightforward definition of terrorism—roughly, as targeting noncombatants for political ends. One obvious reason for this debate is our society’s obsession with terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. Many, including our commander in chief, seem to leap to label horror against civilians “terrorism” as soon as it’s revealed that the attacker is Muslim and before anything has been confirmed about motives. But beyond the issue of double standards, there is a bigger issue at play here that we need to sort out as a society: We seem to imply that “terrorism” is morally worse than ”mass murder” or even ”hate crimes.” That is a flawed proposition that has its roots in a flawed post-9/11 discourse, exacerbated with instrumental use of the “terrorist” label by our government and leaders.
Lawfare has hosted a number of essays on legal aspects of the language used to describe violent events. Benjamin Wittes highlighted the importance of developing common vocabulary to describe them; Jane Chong stressed the consequences, including legal ones, of President Obama labeling the Boston Marathon bombings terrorism but not the Charleston shootings; and Susan Hennessey spoke particularly of the legal logic in categorizing terrorism. Regardless of the legal distinctions, I suggest that there is a prevalent sense that terrorism occupies a higher order of immorality, and offer reflections on its origin and justifiability.
The definition of terrorism includes both ends and means, but moral judgment is principally based on the means. People can morally sympathize with the motives behind some ends of terrorism—freedom, self-determination, etc.—while rejecting the means. With “hate crimes,” on the other hand, both ends and means are objected to, by definition. “Mass murder” is at least as morally objectionable as terrorism, and sometimes more. Yet “terrorism” adds an irrational stigma that elevates moral objections.
There is a similar stigma associated with “suicide terrorism.” All terrorism is morally objectionable based on its targeting of civilians/noncombatants. The “suicide” part adds little value to the moral objections. Without the objectionable targeting of noncombatants, sacrificing the self for a higher cause is celebrated by almost every society. Yet for some, this form of terrorism seems to occupy an even higher level of immorality.
Of course, some of this is about fear: What is the chance that I may be targeted by a mass murderer, a terrorist or a suicide terrorist? Fear of terrorism has intensified since the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war and its continuing fallout. While understandable, this fear is also irrational: The vast majority of mass attacks in the U.S. have not had a clear political motive, and certainly have not been carried out by Muslims.
A bigger factor in the stigmatizing effect of the label “terrorism,” and in the confusion on what constitutes terrorism despite the relatively clear definition, is how our own government and leaders have employed that term in the past decade and a half: To stigmatize enemies, often inconsistently. As I pointed out in an article in the Cornell International Law Journal in 2002, the analytical incoherence of speaking about terrorism as if it were an ideology, not simply an immoral instrument for varying ends (some of which can be legitimate), and of “terrorist groups” instead of “terrorist acts,” has fueled unhelpful discourse and perceptions. In the process, governments have used the terrorist label to delegitimize and squeeze enemies nationally and internationally, with legal consequences. This is not unreasonable for governments to do (to use the label as leverage where they can, such as in State Department reports), but our conversation must be able to identify the instrumentality for what it is. In the post-9/11 world, the label “terrorist” has replaced the label “our worst enemies.” It is as if “enemy” is not enough to rally support, without adding “terrorism.”
This is the lens through which we have come to see the Las Vegas killer. His mass murder is so morally objectionable that we feel it’s incomplete without the terrorist label. That label is unnecessary to pass the harsh moral judgment that the horrific act itself deserves.