Are Mass Shootings Terrorism?


Over the last twenty years America  experienced several mass shootings that have managed to focus its attention away from twerking, reality television, and Facebook. Columbine, Sandy Hook, and now, arguably, the Navy Yard shooting force the country into a raw, sensitive discussion on gun rights and mental health. Surprisingly, the notion that mass shootings should be treated as terrorism rarely emerges.

Then again, perhaps its not so surprising. Terrorism is a word with special power in the contemporary United States, not merely as a rhetorical device, but as a legal mechanism. For example, one could hardly blame libertarian and progressive critics of terrorism for eschewing a mass shooting debate framed through the lens of terrorism.Many such critics are concerned with the ability of that one word, terrorism, to rewrite American law into a police state. The zeitgeist of the gun debate is swinging leftward, why would gun rights activists want to give the left another reason to reform gun law?  While the opportunity to put more pressure on rewriting gun law may be tempting to reformers, many of whom are critical of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act and its progeny, are they willing to risk another sweeping draconian bill?  This is not to say that anyone is engaging in conscious opportunism, there’s no proof of that. However, it is an important topic that can offer one a sophisticated view on the subjects of terrorism and mass shootings.

Much of this comes down to the definition of terrorism and mass shootings and the level of overlap present in their delineations. The FBI defines domestic terrorism as attempts “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population… influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion… affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”  This is a static, unchanging definition that, one, assumes the government is the intended target, and two, it implies a conscious motive. The FBI is focused on intent and treats terrorism as an inherently political act. These assumptions are problematic.Is an act really terrorism,  if and only if,  the primary target is the United States government? It could be argued that the anti-abortion terrorist organization The Army of God cares little for bending the government to its will if it succeeds in bullying abortion providers out of service through naked fear.

Author and terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, provides an open ended definition. In her book, “Why Religious Militants Kill” she says terrorism should be thought of as theatrical acts aimed at non-combatants. One is hard pressed to find an instance of terrorism that isn’t a dramatic act inspiring fear, but the real trick here is the word “non-combatant.” It’s elusive and circumstantial.  Is a soldier a combatant if he’s unarmed, at home, eating dinner with his wife and child?  Both of whom are potential witnesses and victims of any act of violence perpetrated against their father at the dinner table.

In contrast to the labyrinthine discourse defining terrorism inspires, as far as mass shootings are concerned, the FBI definition is probably the best. It’s the killing of four or more people in a compressed time frame, usually the course of an hour. What separates mass shootings from what we normally define as terrorism is boiled down to two points. First, intent is rarely about the government. Columbine author, Dave Cullen, who spent ten years researching his subjects, describes Dylan Klebold with an unquenched thirst for love and Eric Harris as his impulsive psychopathic manipulator. The government was hardly on their minds, but they certainly killed and terrorized many students, teachers, and families, while the Sandy Hook massacre, in addition to wrecking an entire community, has, without intending to, shaped the present debate over gun law, which does establish an influence on government policy. Second, while the public tends to think of terrorists as schemers with elaborate, machiavellian conspiracies, there is a clear pattern of mental illness in mass shootings. Writing for The Health Care Blog, Jeffrey A. Lieberman, states, “since 2009 there have been 21 mass shootings and the perpetrators in over half of these were suffering from or suspected to have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.”

Whether or not one defines mass shootings as terrorism comes down to intent versus effect. If one accepts that the motives of a shooter are less important than the outcome, then yes, mass shootings are clearly a form of terrorism. However briefly, mass shootings succeed in destabilizing our social structures, wreak havoc on lives, and they create terror and do so dramatically, which may be the most important criterion in assessing an event as a terrorist act. There will always be examples, like the Navy Yard shooting, that will add another wrinkle in the debate.  If you reject the premise, then mass shooting remain horrible acts adjacent to terrorism but not a species, but this writer thinks it’s folly not to consider the issue deeply.

Nevertheless, if the United States is going to have an honest discussions on mass shootings, then it is time to put aside our fears of the repercussions and accept mass shootings as a form of terrorism. This doesn’t mean that the country is doomed to further expand an authoritarian power matrix, far from it.  A sober discussion about the blurry lines of terrorism is a stepping stone to rolling back the undemocratic initiatives of the last twelve years by showing the public that if a line isn’t drawn, if scope and character of terrorism isn’t revealed in its totality, then the debate will be forever handicapped and the ever expanding aegis of terrorism will swallow the country regardless.

Written By David Arroyo

After the Navy Yard Shooting

FBI Definition of Terrorism

FBI Def. of Mass Shooting

Cullen, Dave. Columbine.  Hachette Book Group. 2009

Stern, Jessica. Terror in the name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill.   Harper Collins 2003

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