Since 9/11 the word ‘terrorism’ has been passed around like seasoning for every occasion
The memorial events of the London bombing took place at St Paul’s Cathedral last month on the 7th of July 2015. The one minute of silence expressed respect for the 52 people who were killed by a series of terrorist attacks in 2005. The suicide bomb attacks occurred between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, Edgware Road and Paddington, and King’s Cross St. Pancras and Russell Square of the London Underground. About one hour later, the fourth bomb was detonated in a bus as well. This incident is described as ‘the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil’ by BBC.
Terrorism is actually one of the most serious issues in the current world. The hostile feeling towards terrorism has even been strengthened by the infamous ‘War on Terror’ campaign of the Bush administration just after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 – notably linked to the Islamist terrorist group, al-Qaeda. Even European countries, which have been reluctant to get involved in the Middle East and with North America, commenced to raise funds and promote political and economic reform in the region in the aftermath of the attacks. In fact, the United Kingdom provided the additional aid to the Middle East, and Germany also donated 1 million euros as part of an Anti-Terror Package.
Even though, from politicians and Foreign Offices to citizens around the world, everyone seems obsessed by the fear of terrorism, the definition of terrorism is still controversial and unclear. In fact, although just 12 people were killed in Paris by jihadi gunmen between the 7th and 9th of January 2015, the event was described as one of the worst terrorist attacks. It was also debated as to whether it was indeed an act of terrorism. One Muslim man argued on Facebook: ‘it is just a murder and it is so unfair to allege terrorism only when Muslims accidentally happen to be suspects’. In contrast, it was reported as ‘hate crime’ by police when 9 people were shot dead at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by a 21-year-old white American.
How the two occurrences of violence have been described has provoked debate about terrorism and racism. It is far more likely that something will be called an act of ‘terrorism’ if the defendants are either Asian or black, or have Muslim backgrounds and the victims are white. Khurrum Wahid, who is an attorney fighting for civil rights, said: ‘There’s a political will to charge terrorism on certain cases and not on others’.
Although it is a contentious term, the FBI defines terrorism as: ‘to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping’. Hate crime is clarified by Congress as: ‘criminal offence against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation’. The obvious difference between these definitions is whether the criminal activity appears to be intended to have an influence on a government or not.
Considering the two definitions above, it becomes difficult to say that the Charlie Hebdo attack was a terrorist act because the motivation of the attack was basically the offenders’ bias against a private sector. There was neither political motivation nor government involvement. Tarik Kafala, who is the head of BBC Arabic also mentioned: ‘the term “terrorist” was too loaded to scribe the actions of the men who killed 12 people in the attack on [the] French satirical magazine’. Indistinguishably, the shooting in Charleston was driven by extreme racism. In fact, FBI Director James Comey argued: ‘Terrorism is an act of violence done or threatened in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry … I don’t see this [as] a political act’.
In that case, does that mean neither of these attacks were terrorism acts? The answer to this question is still uncertain. According to Brian J. Phillips, who is a research professor of terrorism, the shooting in Charleston was obviously a terrorism act. Considering that the shooter said to the victims that they were ‘taking over our country’, the motivation of the offender was not just racism but rather political will. In regard to the Charlie Hebdo attack, it can also be said, even if it seemed that there was no political motivation, that it is apparent that the series of attacks consequently stabbed at the dignity of freedom of expression – something which clearly concerns the French government and its citizens.
For both cases, it is true that using the term ‘terrorism’ has the possibility of causing endless arguments. This is because the motivation for the attacks and the term itself are both obscure. Even for the offenders themselves, sometimes the motives are uncertain. Hence it is tricky to label an act of violence as terrorism at first glance.
Reporting a given attack as terrorism also has the added risk of making readers biased. Although some people say that using the agitating term enables us to be even more united in our understanding of a mutual enemy, it may after all be a wiser and more prudent option to just describe the facts.