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Commentary: The Meaning Of Terrorism

It Depends On Who You Ask And The Definition Varies By Jurisdiction, Time


By now, you probably know the facts: Stephen Paddock booked a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. He brought in an arsenal of weapons, and shot into an outdoor concert, killing 58 and wounding nearly 500.

What we don’t know yet is why he did it — but authorities say they aren’t looking at terrorism, at least until they know what Paddock’s political beliefs were.

That’s because of how terrorism is largely defined today. The FBI calls it the “use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government … in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Merriam-Webster also invokes a political motivation, defining it as “the use of violent acts to frighten … as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”

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That’s a relatively new definition. The edition of Webster’s on my desk from 1994 says “the systematic use of terror, esp. as a means of coercion.” No mention of political motivation. The same is true for the 1961 unabridged edition.

The word originates in a Latin term, terror cimbricus, describing panic that preceded an attack in ancient Rome. During the French Revolution, Robespierre and his compatriots called themselves terrorists when ordering their daily beheadings during the Reign of Terror.

Only in more recent times has it become a pejorative. Dueling sides of a conflict will lob the terrorist label at each other, while calling themselves freedom fighters.

If dictionaries have contradictions, so do law books. A Nevada statute defines terrorism as an act of sabotage or coercion or violence. Again, with no mention of political motivation.

So was Paddock a terrorist, whatever he believed? Clearly, he had some issue with society, which he apparently sought to resolve by committing mass murder. No one word will bring back those who lost their lives, but failing to call terrorism what it is won’t make us any safer.

Editor’s note: Robin Washington comments regularly for KUWS and writes for the Pulitzer Prize-winning criminal justice website, the Marshall Project, online at themarshallproject.org.

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