What Is Terrorism, Anyway?

A terrorism expert says the definition, at least according to federal law, of a terrorist act is far narrower than many believe.

By Jill AmentOctober 3, 2017 6:53 pm

It seems that after each new mass shooting of Americans, people disagree over how to label an act of seemingly random violence. When a mass shooting occurs – perpetrated by someone with no known ties to Islamist extremism – officials appear reluctant to call the incident an act of terrorism. But how could the deadliest shooting in modern American history be anything but an act of domestic terrorism?  

Randall Law, a professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama is the author of “Terrorism a History.” The second edition of the book came out about a year ago. He says terrorism has a specific definition in federal law, but that many people want to apply the term more broadly, when discussing mass shootings.

“Terrorism is symbolic violence, in which small fringe groups or even individuals use violence against the few to sway the behavior of the many,” Law says. “And they do so by using violence that has symbolic resonance. Of course, calling something ‘terrorism’ focuses the public on an act of violence that calling it just a ‘crime’ doesn’t. It actually mobilizes resources as well, under the various extensions to the Patriot Act, for instance.”

Beyond rhetorical advantage, Law says being able to call an act of violence terrorism also has legal benefits for those who want to capture of punish the criminal.

“Yes, there are ways to get access to certain types of wiretaps, search warrants, and things of that sort, when it’s identified as terrorism,” he says. “There are not, when it is otherwise just, i hate to say it but, garden variety violence.”

But the legal definition of terrorism is narrow, relative to the kinds of mass attacks the United States has endured in the past few years.

“Terrorism is defined in the U.S. Federal Code, in both its international and domestic variants. It only actually applies penalties, though, for international terrorism,” Law says. “You could say, in part, it’s out of sheer practicality, because if a crime is defined as international terrorism, which can include an act of violence here in the United States carried out by a foreigner, it can also be a statute used against a foreigner acting against an American abroad that can be used to mobilize support internationally. Of course, if somebody engages in domestic terrorism – in so doing they are engaging in murder, rape, arson – which would have… a state statute associated with it. So people can be prosecuted, but they can’t be prosecuted for domestic terrorism per se.”

Law says acts committed by domestic hate groups or avowed racists are not legally defined as terrorism.

“By federal statute, it is not legally correct to call Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, Dylann Roof, who carried out the Charleston massacre a few years ago – legally speaking he was not a domestic terrorist. Although, I and other scholars would say he is one of the clearest exemplars we’ve had in recent memory of someone acting through terrorism. He, of course, was prosecuted and is in jail, but not as a domestic terrorist.”


Written by Shelly Brisbin & Kate Groetzinger.