Thursday, March 11, 2010

When is terrorism not terrorism?

When is terrorism not terrorism? When it would be politically bad to speak of it as such. Janet Napolitano recently declared that when Joe Stack flew his airplane into the IRS building, it was not an act of terrorism.

I can see that the definitions of terrorism are controversial and subjective enough that one can come to different points of view. But her logic is twisted. Specifically, she says this:

"To our belief, he was a lone wolf. He used a terrorist tactic, but an individual who uses a terrorist tactic doesn't necessarily mean they are part of an organized group attempting an attack on the United States"
Fair enough - there is indeed no reason to think Stack was part of an organized group. But look at what she says here: "he used a terrorist tactic." The definition of terrorism may be a bit squishy, but I would think that the one thing we'd all agree on is that the use of a "terrorist tactic" (however squishy that is to define) would make one a terrorist. After all, for whatever definition you have of "terrorist tactic," if you don't use a tactic that meets that definition, you're not a terrorist, and if you do, then you are.

A big learning of the past decade, I thought, was that we are not at war with "terrorism," that we are at war with "terrorists." And this distinction is driven entirely by the fact that "terrorism" is a set of tactics, and terrorists are those who employ those tactics.

Joe Stack was not part of an organized group. Good. He also thankfully did not cause nearly the harm that he could have, also good! He's not foreign, you can decide whether that's good or bad. But since when have we ever included organization, competency, or nationality as a criteria for whether or not one is guilty of terrorism?

Napolitano went on to justify this characterization, saying that "lone wolf" actors like stack is not where DHS should be focusing its resources. This is a perfectly fair argument to make. But she shouldn't take the cowardly approach of defining it away from being terrorism to support this position.

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