In his column today, Glenn Greenwald asks: “Can an act of violence be called ‘terrorism’ if its motives are unknown?”

Greenwald surmises:

“It’s hard not to suspect that the only thing distinguishing the Boston attack from Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook and Columbine (to say nothing of the US “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad and the mass killings in Fallujah) is that the accused Boston attackers are Muslim and the other perpetrators are not. As usual, what terrorism really means in American discourse – its operational meaning – is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies.”

FWIW, I have agreed in the past and have done a little media analysis of my own.

Though I still tend to agree, a discussion with a colleague this afternoon raised another question: How much of initial assumption (particularly before the media knows anything about the suspects) is predicated on the type of weaponry involved?

So first off, let’s make a set of assumptions that may or may not be factually accurate:

  • Those who commit violence with bombs have spent considerable time thinking about and preparing their crime.
  • Those who commit violence with guns may have spent time thinking/preparing, but may have simply “snapped.”

Personally, I think there’s an overarching Islamophobia (or, more accurately, fear of Muslims) that pervades this discourse, leading us to assume that shooter Nidal Hasan Malik was a terrorist immediately, even though early evidence indicated that he could have been a terrorist or may have just snapped.  But apart from that, or if we were to ignore the racist element or remove cases involving Muslim perpetrators from the dataset, would it be possible to make reasonable assumptions about whether a given crime was terror based solely on the weaponry used?

Ali Abunimah wrote a good analysis of whether the crime fits the official US definitions of terrorism, highlighting passages in the definition as such:

Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.

With that definition in mind, it probably wouldn’t make any more sense to use weaponry as an early indicator than it does one’s religious background, given examples like the murder of Dr. George Tiller (terrorism by the above definition), or the murder of Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns by a white supremacist (probably terrorism, though I’m not sure it was ever defined as such).

And pre-planning doesn’t always indicate terrorism as defined by the FBI either: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned meticulously for their murder spree, and yet they were never labeled terrorists (interesting side-note: Slate has published an analysis asking if the Tsarnaev brothers’ relationship was like that of Harris and Klebold).

That said, it strikes me that I can’t think of a case where bombs were used that was not deemed terrorism.

I am no expert on any of this (though, let’s be honest, are most of those who call themselves “terrorism experts” these days actual expert?), so I don’t want to run my mouth further, but I’d be curious if anyone could point me to some previous writing or thinking on this question.