The U.S. Code defines both domestic and international terrorism in terms of acts “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” Criminals operate as terrorists whether they target one person, a family, a community, or an entire country.

Individuals who perpetrate domestic violence are “terrorists.” Just talk to victims of domestic violence who feel trapped and desperate as they are intimidated, threatened, and assaulted by a spouse or partner. John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Washington, D.C. snipers, terrorized an entire area of the country from Baltimore to Richmond during 2002 as they killed 10 and wounded three people who were complete strangers to them. Residents of that populous region were afraid to go about even the most routine aspects of their lives, such as stopping at a gas pump, lest they be gunned down by this murderous pair.

In his book, The Psychopathic God, Robert G.L. Waite provides evidence that, from childhood, Adolf Hitler manifested thinking and behavior patterns common to criminals including his “blind fury,” brutality toward animals and his general hatred toward the world. The rest of the well-known story of Hitler is that of a criminal who amassed power to terrorize, torture, and slaughter millions of people.

The list of individuals and organizations that have created terror in their homes and communities is endless—the Ku Klux Klan which terrorized blacks in the south, Paul Hill who terrorized abortion clinics and killed two men, Timothy McVeigh who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and killed 168 people (including 19 children). The list is unending.

Twenty-first century terrorists were not, as is often depicted, responsible productive citizens before they somehow got “radicalized.” They were criminals who came to embrace causes that they could use as vehicles in their search for excitement, power, and conquest. Jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a bully, heavy drinker, a participant in armed robbery, and other criminal acts before he became the mastermind behind bombings, suicide missions, and executions. He was more dedicated to creating mayhem and slaughter than to advancing a particular cause. On June 7, 2006, he was killed by U.S. forces.

Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was characterized in a New York Times article as a college dropout, a social isolate, and a violent young man. He was also linked to drug dealing and participation in a triple murder. As more information emerged about Tamerlan, it became clear that he was a criminal before he participated in the deadly attack in Boston.

Terrorists can attach themselves to any cause including worthwhile efforts such as protection of the environment, animal rights, historic preservation, or various political movements. Criminals who attach themselves to a cause, however noble, employ tactics that are extreme. If held accountable, they then justify their criminal behavior by claiming that they were serving the cause.

Terrorist groups know where to locate recruits. Many find willing servers of their cause in prison. Inmates recruit other inmates on the spot or identify them as potential recruits to be engaged after they are released. Recruiters for terrorism go to neighborhoods where they find unemployed drifters, many of whom already have had encounters with the police. In the aftermath of the recent Paris terrorist attacks, information is emerging indicating that some of the perpetrators previously were thieves, burglars, and involved in other types of crime. But it is not social conditions that create terrorism. Most people in impoverished, unstable areas are not criminals and do not kill anyone. The critical factor is the criminal personality of the individual, not the environment in which he lives. In thinking about terrorism, do not omit consideration of who the terrorist was before he embraced the “cause.”

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