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Who is a terrorist?

February 24, 2010
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasleen_kaur/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Given that there is entirely too much hysteria attached to the word ‘terrorist’ and that far too much of that is attached specifically to the dark-skinned, non-Christian demographic, it’s probably not very productive to get too invested in the debate about whether Joseph Stack, the anti-tax terrorist (manifesto here)who crashed his plane into an IRS office in Austin killing one (besides himself) and injuring thirteen, was or was not a terrorist. Regardless of whether or not Stack himself was a terrorist, the indisputable facts are these: 1) there certainly are white-skinned, Christian terrorists and 2) we should be on guard against the very real tendency to downplay terrorist, borderline terrorist, and plain-old despicable acts when the person looks and talks more like Middle America.

However. Even if you agree to dispense with the word ‘terrorist’ and the reflex hyperventilation that comes along with it, you still need to classify different cases differently–race, religion, and nationality are just, everyone should agree, the wrong ways to do it. (Appallingly, not everyone agrees even on this, but that’s a separate issue.) It’s also, for a different reason, wrong to classify violent fearmongers as either personally or politically motivated, terrorists, the thought goes, always and only being politically motivated. The put-upon worker who finally goes postal (see Milton in Office Space) is, of course, personally, not politically motivated. But it’s hard to find anyone who is just politically motivated, for whom there is no relevant personal history that in some way explains their ideological commitments, and it gets even harder as the politics in question get more and more radical. After 9/11 the marketplace was flooded with books and movies that sought to explain the radical politics of al Qaeda types in terms of their personal humiliations. If Stack should be ranked below sundry jihadis on the badness scale, it’s not just because he was acting out of personal grievances on some level deserving of sympathy. So, in all likelihood, were they.

Like Atta and McVeigh, Stack had a political agenda which he sought to advance through violence and fear by attacking civilians. But even within the ranks of the politically motivated violent fearmongers, there are important distinctions to be drawn. This goes beyond the relatively small scale of his attack. Stack was not, so far as we know, allied to a larger terrorist movement, though, sadly, he may yet get his wish and inspire one after his death. Nor was he allied to a terrorist movement with the real (but often overestimated) potential to commit acts of large-scale murder. None of this is to excuse him as not-a-terrorist or, what comes to the same thing, not-one-of-those-terrorists. The whole terrorist vs. not-a-terrorist thing is just a crude way to look at cases that need to be placed rationally and dispassionately along a finely graduated scale.

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