Now that some time has passed since the tragic events in Orlando, Florida, people might actually be willing to think about reality outside of the various fears and paranoias left in the wake of the recent mass murders there.
No doubt, most peoples’ minds are still fixated on the notion of terrorism, as many believe was the sole motivation behind what happened in at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. So while the specter of terrorism is still on the minds of many, keep the following in the forefront of your thoughts: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines “terrorism” as the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.
Imagine that I’m one of those perpetually unhappy souls, wallowing in whatever unbearable funk that puts us on a path of self-destruction. Being agnostic, I’m neither persuaded nor dissuaded by considerations of afterlife consequences. But I am constantly seeing others around me enjoying their happy lives—the same happiness that eludes me.
And taking advantage of the fact that I have no criminal or negative psychological background, I decide to buy a handgun—no, a semi-automatic weapon—and inflict as much pain on as many people as Since I can’t be happy, then no one should be! And knowing that I will die (probably at the hands of law enforcement or at my own hands; I will play the events out as they come); I will do what I can to be relevant in the memories of others, either by fame of infamy. That’s my ultimate rationale for what I plan on doing.
I make my way to the nearest venue of convenience; one where I know—in all likelihood—is teeming with happy people. Already emotionally unstable, I become incensed looking at all the carefree happiness those around me are experiencing. I whip out my weapon and start sharing my pain with others, spraying bullets indiscriminately and killing men, women, and children. And before the police can come in an stop my mission, I—in a last act of defiance—decided to take whatever potential joy they may have in killing me by taking myself out of that particular equation by killing myself.
In the days and weeks following the mass killing, pundits, acquaintances, and armchair psychoanalysts alike will begin evaluating my motives, engaging in detached speculation, and supposing about my “derangement.” Since I left no outward or obvious indicators as to the whys of my actions, I will—paradoxically—fall into the anonymity of so many other mass shooters looking for eternal infamy. Some will chalk my actions up to another example of a depraved individual, submitting to an equally culture that glorifies both guns and violence…like so many others before me. And a lack of a solid motive or declared would support most such speculations. And since my victims were random, it would be obvious that my actions would not be seen as terrorism. One would be hard-pressed to think anything more of the 2007 gun massacre of 32 people at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute by Seung-Hui Cho, as it was later discovered that mental illness played a part in his actions.
Now, let’s change things around a little bit.
Instead of an aimless soul seeking infamy, let’s say my actions have a greater-than-myself aim. Such motivations are not an uncommon occurrence I mass shooters in America. In 2012, Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and killed 5 men and a woman by shooting them. As he was confronted by the police, Page ended his own rampage in a familiar manner; he shot himself in the head, killing himself nearly instantly. A subsequent investigation by authorities revealed Page’s solid links to white supremacist organizations.
Wade Michael Page
Though more rare today than in times past, in April of 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., a known Neo-Nazi shot 3 people in similar fashion at a Jewish community center in Kansas. Like Page, Miller was a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist. Authorities found many racist publications after a subsequent search of his home. To that effect, it was determined by investigators that the motive behind his rampage was anti-Semitism. And like many who engage in mass killings, both Page and Miller apparently planned for death in their paths to historical infamy; Page by shooting himself, and Miller by eagerly expecting to be put to death for his act (during his trial, Miller stated that, "It's my life and I'll do as I please... The death penalty don't bother me" while adding that, if found guilty, "I'll climb up on the gurney and stick the needle in myself.” He was found guilty and sentenced to death in state court. See: “F. Glenn Miller Jr. Takes Over His Own Defense in Jewish Center Killings.”).
Frazier Glenn Miller
Instead of “deranged,” both Page and Miller’s actions were attributed to a hatred of minorities—hence, their actions’ designation as “hate crimes.” Were their motives political, as per the definition of an act of terrorism? Depends on who you ask. Someone affiliated with the targeted groups will be more likely to call these attacks acts of terrorism, while those who apply a narrower—albeit murky—set of criteria will not.
Now suppose that in my own example, like both Page and miller, I decided to make my targets less-than-random? Suppose I targeted only females, teenagers, or those belonging to a particular ethnic persuasion? While these incidents yielded no declared politically-motivated intent, one can be inferred. By singling out members of a particular group for harm, such acts become less acts of random violence, and more of targeted assaults on those representing particular cultural sub-groups. In essence, they could be considered acts of terrorism, but on the whole they aren’t—even despite the fact that the targeted individuals belonged to particular religious/ethnic minorities, a note which solidifies the motives and goals of the perpetrators.
Now, suppose I decided to engage in an act of violence in which my motivations could be seen as being more politically-inspired. After all, many people see dying (or killing) for a cause that others see as “noble” would make one a long-remembered martyr. Maybe if I targeted a symbol of (perceived) oppression, my actions are less likely to be seen as a random act of violence by a “deranged man.” What’s more, I feel that if I were to follow through, my name would be remembered for all posterity for killing in the name of a grand cause.
That certainly was the thinking behind the actions of Dylann Roof in South Carolina. In 2015, the 23-year old Roof—according to media and law-enforcement reports—walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston under the pretext of joining parishioners in evening services. After a few minutes of praying with the church members in attendance, Roof opened fire with a handgun, killing nine people in attendance. The motivation was racial hatred (Roof was white, while those he shot were all black. See also: "The Charleston Shootings - What Is Terrorism?").
In multiple internet postings, Roof publicly declared his belief that that "blacks were taking over the world,” after the public reactions in the wake of the Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray cases from Florida and Massachusetts cases Respectively. Additionally, Roof posted several racially-charged-themed images of himself online. One image from his Facebook page showed him wearing a jacket decorated with flag patches used as emblems among American white supremacist movements (those of from the former Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa). Another photo showed Roof sitting on the hood of his car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag image. In keeping with the themes of those images, Roof expressed his support of racial segregation in the United States and had intended to start a civil war.
Despite these declared motives, the targeting of a specific group, and the use of violence to those ends, most Americans are reluctant to call even this horrifying event an act of “terrorism.” Indeed, its distinction as a “hate crime” is more readily applied than anything else. So can we conclude that a targeted group’s racial identity, inferred or stated political goals, religious persuasion, or nationality are, in themselves, not enough to condemn a particular act of violence as an act of terrorism? What about methodologies of violence, or links to organized (terrorist) groups?
In most of the previous examples, guns were the preferred means of committing both targeted and random violence.
Both Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph did not commit their acts of violence using firearms. Both were solidly aligned with groups and/or causes that most would agree are far beyond the mainstream—with McVeigh’s affiliation with the anti-government militia movement, and Rudolph’s membership in the radically anti-abortion Army of God (incidentally, both individuals had loose affiliations with the racist Christian Identity religious movement, while Miller and Page were known members of Neo-Nazi Groups). Both targeted institutions with solidly political goals in mind—even if they were relegated to statements of dissatisfaction rather than actually attempting to actually change the political and/or social status quo. However, both used explosives as their chosen methods rather than firearms. And both were considered “domestic terrorists” in no uncertain terms. But what about the actions of Page, Miller, and Roof…aren’t their group affiliations enough to condemn their actions as “terrorism?” Maybe there’s another factor that needs to be present in order for such politically-inspired violence to be considered acts of terrorism…
So which other organized group could I affiliate myself with where I could engage in politically-motivated violence in a cause bugger then myself against targeted groups, and have my actions be considered acts of terrorism?
So let’s change another factor in my previous scenario…that of my own motives. Suppose as someone contemplating a mass shooting, my motives were religious rather than secular in orientation? Organized religion, with its many splinter denominations and politically-active affiliated arms would easily provide me with a sense of purpose for my violent intentions. But since I’m black, I couldn’t very well link myself with the race-conscious Christian Identity movement. And I’m fairly sure the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan wouldn’t be open to me as a prospective member. So I need a platform to validate both my actions and my quest for infamy, preferably a religious one, and one already in the news, where people are already so fearful and paranoid of that I shouldn’t have any problem being remembered long after I am gone. Fortunately, there is already one that comes to mind.
What if by birthright, I happened to belong to the Islamic faith. Suppose I had some personal demons that forced me to seek a greater sense of belonging or purpose….one that would allow me to distance myself from said demons. Though I might not truly be committed to my faith, it still allows me the cover to aspire to something bigger than myself. I mean, if I were truly faithful to my cause, I would have had long-term affiliations and—nowadays—a trail of publicly-posted sympathies on social media. And if I were actually well-learned about the geopolitical intricacies of Islam, I would certainly know with which sect and/or branch of its most radicalized wings I was going to both affiliate and sympathize myself with. And if I were, in fact, going to go on a mass shooting of “infidel” Americans, I certainly wouldn’t target a semi-ostracized sub-culture like homosexuals to make my point—I would go after a target that would allow me to kill as many Americans of any and every stripe as possible in order to make my political point known. But knowing the social psychology of Americans to the point where I know that they are both deathly paranoid and suspicious of Muslims (thank Donald Trump), I know that if I were to claim affiliation with Islam, I would not only gain notoriety, but infamy, and—from my own perverted perspectives—respect. Despite the questions my inconsistent building blocks of my violence-achieved political message, I will have earned my infamy as a great “terrorist,” even if it is granted to me posthumously.
Well, that is exactly what happened with regard to events surrounding the Orlando Pulse Nightclub Massacre. The perpetrator, 29 year-old Omar Mateen was the American-born son of Afghani immigrants. Aside from brief pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, Mateen had spent no extensive time abroad in regions where he could have become indoctrinated and radicalized under extreme Islamic doctrine. As further proof of this, the night Mateen committed the mass shootings at the Orlando area gay club, he called local 911 authorities and claimed affiliation and solidarity with the Islamic State, more widely known as ISIS. In his call, Mateen claimed that he was a Hezbollah member. Hezbollah is a Shiite organization that is fighting ISIS and is considered one of ISIS' biggest enemies. He also claimed that he and his family were connected to al-Qaida. Again, a totally different organization that does not see eye-to-eye at all with ISIS (in fact the two groups often clash in parts of Afghanistan), and both don't see eye to eye with Shiite Hezbollah. His claim as a radical sympathizer with radical elements of Islam wasn’t scrutinized by the shocked American public. Most Americans were all-too eager to take Mateen at his word that his actions were inspired by his (supposed) sympathies with ISIS.
The absence of any pro-radical sympathies on social media is perhaps among the most telling red-flag of his claims (see: “The Challenge of Explaining Omar Mateen Through His Social Media Accounts.”). This would support the fact there has been zero evidence of Mateen having been directed by any known terrorist organizations to carry out the attack through social media.
So the question becomes, does publicly declaring one’s self and one’s actions to be in solidarity with a known terrorist organization and their goals make one a “terrorist?” Well, this week’s sniper killings of 5 Dallas, Texas police officers during a public protest of police shootings of civilians wouldn’t bear this out, as already law-enforcement officials and the media are calling this act an “act of terrorism” (Example: “This is Dallas, This is Our City, And We Don't Let Terrorism Win”). This in turn begs a similar question; does the reality of targeted individuals make an act of terrorism? While targeted individuals and/or groups are a factor, they certainly cannot be the lone deciding factor in what constitutes terrorism, as every example provided included targeted individuals. What about the extent and brazenness of the acts of violence? In a sense, all of the examples provided were brazen and/or extensive to some degree; what’s more brazen than bombing a building containing a day care center for toddlers (McVeigh) or attacking unarmed parishioners inside a church as they are praying? Yet, one is considered an act of terrorism, and one is considered “merely” a “crime.” That’s simply too inconsistent a criteria.
The one lone factor then is religion…not the religion of those who would be my targets, but my own. And it would have to be a religion with a (recent) history of having its name and tradition appropriated by extremists with its midst, much like “good white Christians” appropriated the tradition of Christianity in America, as they lynched black people, and forcibly relocated Native Americans from their native lands onto reservations. Think about the recent high-profile acts of violence and destruction where the perpetrators all shared the same Islamic faith: the 1993 Trade Center Bombing; the 2001 September 11th Attacks; the 2015 San Bernardino Shooting Attacks; and last month’s Orlando Pulse Nightclub Shooting. These were instances that were universally considered “terrorist attacks.” Many contained the same elements of violence, greater-than-me-motives, and political message (both spoken and unspoken).
The overall message here is that the term “terrorism” is such a loaded, such a fear-driven term that we only seem to—inconsistently and sporadically—apply it to those acts of violence that we deem cuts to the heart of our daily life as Americans. But in reality, all mass shootings, bombings, and politically-motivated acts of violence challenges our sense of peace and normalcy. Additionally, picking and choosing which acts of violence we deem so great as to constitute “terrorism” further divides the country. Those with an agenda, such as Donald Trump can easily exploit these situations to their political advantage, further polarizing us along ideological lines.
For the sake of consistency and the conveyance of their horrific nature, every act of violence with a political message and/or greater-than-me intent should be considered “terrorism.” And religious affiliation should not be the lone criteria for what constitutes such acts, because in essence, when someone uses violence with a narrow “greater good” intent, all victims are all terrorized—those who are killed, those who are lucky enough to survive, and those of us forced to witness such atrocities.