Two mass murders reveal how difficult—and important—it is to correctly identify terrorism

J.M. Berger writes:

Two mass murders took place within 48 hours this week. Both attackers were adherents of extremist ideologies. Both terrorized people. But one of these two attacks was clearly terrorism, and one was apparently not. What’s the difference?

Early Sunday morning, Travis Reinking walked into a Tennessee Waffle House wearing nothing but a jacket and started shooting, killing four and wounding several more. Early reporting indicates that Reinking had a history of apparent mental illness. But Reinking also identified himself as a sovereign citizen, an antigovernment movement associated with more than 100 acts of violence and dozens of deaths over the last decade and a half.

On Monday afternoon, 25-year-old Alek Minassian drove a rented van into dozens of Toronto pedestrians, killing 10 and wounding 13. It soon emerged that he was an adherent of the so-called “incel” movement, short for “involuntarily celibate,” a term co-opted by online adherents of an anti-woman ideology whose primary grievance is that women aren’t having sex with them. Minassian posted on Facebook moments before starting his rampage:

Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.

(All signs point to the post being authentic, but the reference to 4chan, the origin point of many online hoaxes, has been a red flag for some analysts.)

The place to start, in distinguishing between these attacks, is by defining terrorism. The word has been politicized like few others, used as a rhetorical tool to demonize society’s villains du jour. Even within academic and policy circles, there is dispute over its precise meaning. Within the U.S. government, terrorism is a word usually, and improperly, reserved for jihadist extremists, due in part to the political proclivities of the moment and the statutory definition of terrorism, which is for the most part restricted to specifically designated foreign-terrorist organizations.

For most who deal with the issue day in and day out, though, terrorism is public violence to advance a political, social, or religious cause or ideology. Some variation remains as far as the details (many people distinguish between military and civilian targets, for instance, or stipulate that the perpetrator be a nonstate actor), but this broad definition has been widely adopted in the almost 17 years since September 11 and the launch of the Global War on … well, you know.

In the Waffle House shooting, no information has so far emerged to suggest that the attack was intended to advance an ideology, even though the perpetrator was apparently an extremist adherent. The investigation, of course, is still in its early days. Sometimes it takes years of investigation to gather enough information to make a correct assessment. But some details of the attack (the attacker’s nudity, the timing, and choice of target) seem to point in a different direction. Reinking’s involvement in sovereign citizenry may have contributed to his violent tendencies, but there is nothing to suggest his attack was meant to be instrumental.

The Toronto attack presents a very different situation. The driver posted a statement moments before the attack began. Although too brief to be considered a manifesto, that statement nevertheless contains all the elements necessary to deem this terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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