I just can’t let Bill Bennett’s little gem in this week’s National Review go without a response. It seems that Bill is upset that Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s irrational shooting spree at Fort Hood is not regarded as a terrorist act.
What defines terrorism?
Let’s start with what terrorism is, and what it isn’t, because words still do matter, even in the age of 140-character wisdom.
- Princeton University WordNet – (the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear) (link)
- Dictionary.com – 1the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes. 2 the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization. 3 a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.
- United States Law – U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d)(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;
There are three different definitions of the term “terrorism. In those three definitions, there are two common threads: politics and the victims.
What does not define terrorism?
Simply put: age, gender, race, religion, or IQ of the attacker. When Bennett bloviates on his theme and says this:
Who would have thought a health care center . . . run by the Army . . . in a Fort . . . in Texas, would not have been the last safe place in America, safe from terrorism, safe from our own U.S. military hosting an officer-terrorist. Of course, as we all know, it was not safe. On November 5th, 14 people were shot to death by a Radical Muslim in Army uniform. He had a laser sight on his gun.
Laser sight aside, the fact of Hasan’s religion and obviously Arabic name does not automatically toss him into terrorist territory. As much as Bennett might like to assume all terrorists are olive-skinned, have Arabic last names, and carry guns with laser sights on them, those three criteria have absolutely nothing to do with the characterization of an act or a person as terrorist. Sorry Bill, but this is Google 101.
The very worst spin you can realistically place on this attack is that it was an act of war on a United States military installation. But even then it would be difficult, given that Major Hasan is a United States citizen, does not hold dual citizenship in another country and as yet, there have been no clear statements that what he did was anything other than a selfish, deranged, tragic act of violence.
Even if one accepts the premise that he acted to make some sort of statement about being shipped to Afghanistan or the Afghanistan war itself (which is weak and unsupported at this stage), it’s still not an act of terror because it was a military officer doing violence on a military installation.
Why quibble over terms?
I quibble because it matters. Misapplying the term gives some groups cover to deny their own terrorist acts and jihads. Bennett is quite right when he says this:
There is a rot that spreads outside of Washington into the larger culture. It begins with a confusion of terms, and by not calling things by their proper names, it begins with a disassembling of the moral categories. We don’t hear about terrorism or radical Islam so we are surprised to find it in our midst, and when we do, we don’t even recognize it.
That’s right, Bill. It does. One of the reasons that the civilian/military distinction is so utterly crucial is because acts of terrorism are intended to frighten civilians into silent acquiescence. They are intended to force a specific set of religious or world views on an entire populace. They are intended to make civilians, who are NOT fighting wars, afraid of their friends, neighbors, and strangers on the street. To make them afraid of those they encounter on a daily basis, to make them afraid to leave their homes. Hence the term, terror. They follow this up with the claim that they hold all the answers to us NOT being afraid to leave our homes, workplaces, cities, towns, and villages. But really, they just want us to be afraid of each other.
This is why suicide bombers who walk into wedding parties and blow the bride and groom to bits are terrorists.
This is why Randall Terry’s abortion doctor jihad, abortion clinic bombings, and cold-blooded shootings of abortion doctors like Dr. Tiller are terrorist acts.
This is why people who put up signs threatening war and assassination of our President and those who support him advocate terrorist acts.
In the last two examples, the would-be terrorists are white as snow, American as applie pie, good ‘guns, god and gold’ types. Still, they use violence and violent language in an effort to cow the civilian populace into surrendering to their point of view and being afraid of each other.
So yes, Bennett is right on this one point: By misapplying the term terrorist to Hasan, cover is given to Tiller killers, bishops, extreme fundamentalist Christian groups and others who use violent language and acts to cow Americans into the belief that their answer is the only answer.
Since 911, the only terrorist acts in this country have been committed by US Citizens with names like Roeder, Duke, Bridgeforth, et al. Hasan? He is surely deranged, perhaps deluded into wanting to hurt a government fighting a war that perhaps he doesn’t believe in. He may have even believed he was fighting his own jihad. But as an officer in the United States Army inflicting his particular brand of carnage on innocent military personnel, his act was not terrorism. An act of war? Perhaps. But in this country, since George Bush and perhaps as far back as Ronald Reagan and his “War on Drugs”, everything is a war. Everything.
When the terms war and terrorism have been bent as far as Bennett demonstrates, people snap. When fear and hate poison discourse, people snap. Hasan snapped.
My heart and prayers go out to every family who lost a beloved in Major Hasan’s attack on Fort Hood. Shame on Bill Bennett for using that attack to politicize tragedy and instill fear in his readers.
Is there anything more important than the issue of terrorism?
Why yes, indeed there is. It’s more important to feed those who are going hungry, to give those who are sick access to health care, to come together as a society and reject violence as the answer to the problems we face as individuals and a nation. To find those answers and meet those needs, we cannot be afraid. Bennett wants us to be afraid, to kill the source of the fear. To do that, we’d have to first look in the mirror.
Hasan is not a terrorist, but his anger should not be ignored. It is the anger stored in many of us, stoked by fear. The same fear that causes some to cry out that they “want their country back” because the President looks different from the one who went before him. The same fear that causes some of us to wonder if we’ll be out on the streets this time next year because of an illness in the family. We all have fear. The challenge is overcoming it, not putting it into a box called “terrorism”.
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