A middle aged white guy with tax problems recently flew a small plane into the I.R.S. building in Austin, Texas. That sad episode triggered a public discussion on whether to classify this cowardly criminal act as “terrorism” or not. Austin’s Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Republican Rep. Michael McCall both labeled it a case of domestic terrorism, but President Obama’s Special Counter-Terrorism Assistant John Brennan didn’t deem it worthy of the designation.
Glenn Greenwald wrote recently that not designating the Austin incident a “terrorist attack” simply highlights a bigoted reality that only Muslim perpetuated violence is worthy of such designation. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), held a national press conference on February 22 to highlight “a double standard on the use of the label “terrorism” as it relates to acts of violence committed by people who are not Muslims.” CAIR quoted U.S. Code Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 defining “terrorism” as: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets.”
They further quoted from the Federal Code of Regulations defining the terrorism crime as involving, “the unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Having an argument about whether or not to call specific attacks “terrorism” misses the point and indicates a misunderstanding of how counterterrorism policymaking works.
Everyone, lawyers included, would agree that “terrorism” is essentially politically motivated violence. There might be a United Nations north-south split over whether targeting militaries should be included in the definition, but when targeting civilian populations through terrorist acts as a means to achieve political objectives a global consensus exists that this is “terrorism.”
This method of defining all politically motivated violence as an equal threat is a defensive approach to counter-terrorism policy making. This model doesn’t allow a focus on the perpetrator profile likely to cause the next severely damaging attack. And without a focused profile law enforcement, with limited resources, has a lesser chance of preempting future major attacks. Often preventative analysis in the defensive model is too heavily influenced by sociological/environmental considerations such as poverty reduction, but this analysis has been proven inadequate and, since 9/11, also politically impractical.
The offensive posture to fighting terrorism recognizes the socio-political factors driving “violent extremism,” but it also recognizes that the main thrust of counter-terrorism resources must be allocated to the following two areas: First, there needs to be a focus on the type of threats that are most likely to repeat themselves in the near term, and second threat assessments must incorporate the attack’s psychological impact on society and its way of life.
We need to ask ourselves two key questions concerning the Austin-IRS office plane attack before designating it a terrorist attack: First, was it a psychologically traumatizing act of violence with societal-level impact? The fact of the matter is that while this was a very cowardly criminal act, society is not fearful of the middle-aged white guys with IRS issues massacring civilians.
Second, is the profile of this attack one likely to reoccur in the near term and thus carries a “terrorizing” impact upon society; or is it simply an infrequent/one-off event?
Two critical factors worthy of consideration here are whether there’s an ideological movement inciting folks to conduct violent acts against the IRS, and second whether the IRS is systemically -- as a matter of policy -- pushing taxpayers to a critical pressure point. While anti-taxation beliefs are as American as the original Boston Tea Party and much activism exists around the topic, no “ideology” or “movement” infrastructure exists that would radicalize our citizenry to systematically murder federal employees. When it comes to the IRS abusing taxpayers to the point where, for example, one percent of them might snap every year, that’s obviously not true and is not supported by any empirical data.
In September 1986 Christopher Hitchens wrote a column in Harpers magazine called “Wanton acts of usage. Terrorism: A cliché in search of a meaning.” In that article he explained how the word “terrorism” has lost all practical usefulness due to its misuse in political discourse.
Almost 25 years later it’s time for us to get off the proverbial hamster wheel. After every major act of domestic violence it’s time for us to stop debating whether or not it qualifies as “terrorism.” We need to recognize that our country’s counterterrorism resources are finite. We simply can’t target all sources of violence equally. We must prioritize our efforts and focus our attention and resources on combating violent extremism. We need to be aware of the psychological impact that comes from the reasonable fear in our society of an on-going and future terror threat. We also need to fight back against a militant ideological movement or movements with the capacity to consistently target civilians as a means to achieving their political goals.
The public is largely focused on what is known about previous terror attacks, to the extent it’s reported in the media, so that it can learn from them how to gauge future violent threats. While understandable, it’s not an effective way to anticipate and prevent future attacks. In fact, it’s like driving your car down the road by only looking through the rear view mirror. That might work as long as the road is straight but when the road curves or something changes, it’s easy to wind up in the ditch.
Although it might appear counter-intuitive, our public discourse needs to shift from debating labels to prioritizing efforts to identify and combat violent extremism threats. Only then can we objectively assess our efforts to prevent them.
Mohamed Elibiary is a National Security Policy Analyst advising several Intelligence and Law Enforcement agencies and serves as one of three appointed civilians to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Advisory Board. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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