Dangerous Minds

Understanding the motives and methods of terrorists.

Why Isn’t Anyone Calling This Terrorism?

A gaping blind spot in the way we see, feel, and interpret acts of violence.

Imagine this scenario: A shooter walks into a Christian Community center and opens fire, killing three people and wounding several others. As the perpetrator is taken into custody, he shouts ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Upon further investigation, details emerge about the perpetrators long-standing ties to a group committed to perpetuating acts of violence and widely labeled as an ‘Islamist terrorist organization’. In addition, the alleged perpetrator has a lengthy background of organizing and distributing publications advocating for, and inciting, violence where he targets various groups, with a special emphasis placed on Christians, who he demonizes and dehumanizes using graphic language.

Without a doubt, this event would be labeled and investigated as an act of terrorism, and the perpetrator would be described as a terrorist. So why is what happened in Kansas City different? And why is the media so reluctant to even consider using the term terrorism in this case?

On Sunday April 13, 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller reportedly opened fire outside of a Jewish community center in Kansas City. The following day, the attack was the lead story on NBC’s today show, and featured on the cover of USA Today, though it was scarcely mentioned on the cover page of The New York Times. The word terrorism has not been mentioned in a single bit of news coverage I have seen. At the time of this writing, the term ‘hate crime’ has been equivocally and tentatively applied.

However, the timing of the attack is two days before Passover, and the shooter was reported to be yelling “Heil Hitler” as he was taken into custody. Clearly this has some symbolic value, which also has the potential to speak to the issue of motivation. Of critical importance here is the perpetrator’s involvement in the KKK (and an offshoot called the White Patriot Party), as well as his role in publishing the ‘Aryan Alternative’ newspaper.

Would it have been different if the attack involved bombs?  What about bombs that he learned to make in an online magazine? What about if the attacker, rather than shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ instead was shouting ‘Allahu Akbar?’

This, to me, represents a fairly huge and gaping blind spot in the way that we fundamentally see, feel, and interpret acts of violence.

Understandably, it appears that media outlets are taking leads on how this act of violence is labeled from sources close to the investigation. I certainly understand that this is an ongoing investigation, and we need additional details to emerge. However, that is beside the point I am raising here.

Motives matter as we assess whether something can be defined as an act of terrorism. But as this tragic example lays bare, evidently so does the identity of both the perpetrators and the victims. Again, without a doubt had the perpetrator been yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he was apprehended that would have all but guaranteed both the immediate labeling of this as an act of terrorism and for the investigation and case to be made on related counts.

In some ways, this horrific event and resultant coverage reminds me of the coverage of the Sikh Temple shootings in Milwaukee, and how the term ‘hate crime’ was applied. Wade Michael Page’s involvement in the White Supremacist community and especially the music scene, received considerable attention. But in the public dialogue, the violence fell short of achieving the designation as an act of terrorism.

I don’t mean this to be another example in the morass of definitional debates about what is, or is not, terrorism. Rather, I mean it to be a critique of how the term is differentially applied—and in this case, apparently on the basis of functions of identity. Because here, based on what we know so far—the behavioral elements and motivational elements certainly seem to warrant the use of the “T” word.

Anthony Lemieux, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Communication at Georgia State University. 

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