What do we mean by the word “terrorism”?

News, Politics

“Terrorism” is a word that gets used millions of times a day, not only in the media and the government, but around water coolers and dinner tables. But this buzzword is being applied in widely different ways by different people and within different contexts. So how does the United States government define terrorism, and do the San Bernardino shootings meet this definition?

Many people have a sense that terrorism is any act of violence that threatens a group of people; there are actually over 200 definitions of terrorism used around the world. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” That’s probably the most common understanding of the term. However, there are very specific definitions used by the U.S. government and the FBI to identify terrorism and specify the actual crime of terrorism.

Domestic terrorism under U.S. law

Many would define domestic terrorism as an act of politically motivated violence that happens on U.S. soil. It’s a bit more complex than that, however. Federal law, in the United States Code, defines domestic terrorism and international terrorism differently.

Domestic terrorism has three components according to this law. First, it must happen in the United States; second, it must involve acts that violate a law or which are dangerous.

The third component is the most important, however. It involves intent, and it’s what separates terrorism from other crimes. In order for an act to be considered terrorism under federal law, the people committing the crime must have the appearance of intending to do one of three things:

  • intimidate or coerce U.S. civilians as a group
  • influence government policy through intimidation or coercion
  • affect government conduct through mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

The FBI adds two more requirements under its regulations: domestic terrorism must be done without foreign direction and be done with the intent to intimidate or coerce the government or population for political reasons. Those two stipulations make the FBI’s definition significantly more stringent.

International terrorism under U.S. law

The U.S. Code also offers a definition of international terrorism, which is identical to the domestic terrorism definition except that the crime must occur “primarily” outside the territorial United States or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means used to accomplish the act, the intended victims, or the place where the perpetrators operate or seek asylum.  The FBI definition is similar in this instance.

It’s a crime, but is it terrorism?

Looking at all of these regulations and laws together, it’s actually unclear if the San Bernardino shootings were domestic terrorism. When labelling something as terrorism, it all comes down intent. Was the intent of the shooters to influence government policy or to intimidate and coerce the citizens of the U.S.?

While it’s increasingly clear the shooters had been “radicalized” some time before the shootings, details of the killers’ motive and intent have not been ascertained (or released, at least). The other question is whether this occurred with or without some kind of foreign direction.

Using the government’s definition of domestic terrorism, there have been fewer than 300 deaths from such acts in the United States since the September 11 attacks. Terrorism does in fact incite terror, but the numbers reveal it is not as rampant as we might think.

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