A running NEWSWEEK debate about why and when we decide to call attacks on our country by the loaded word “terrorism.”
Late last week, NEWSWEEK staffers debated over email about the “terrorist” label. The discourse went well over three days. Should Joseph Stack be labeled a terrorist? Who decides? Can we, as journalists, apply the label equally to the likes of Stack, the Unabomber, Al Qaeda, Timothy McVeigh or anyone who plans to kill, injure or plan some kind of destruction of government property for whatever reason?
This email thread was not intended for publication, but we wanted to open up the heated debate. Add your opinions in the comment section below.
Devin Gordon , Editor, NEWSWEEK.com
We've been having a discussion over here about the aversion so far to calling the Austin Tax Wacko a terrorist-or as the Wall St Journal called him “the tax protester.” And I'm wondering if anyone has read yet – or would tackle themselves—a thorough comparison between our ho-hum reaction to a guy who successfully crashed a plane into a government building versus the media's full-throated insanity over the underpants bomber, who didn't hurt anyone but himself.
Kathy Jones, Managing Editor (Multimedia)
Did the label terrorist ever successfully stick to McVeigh? Or the Unabomber? Or any of the IRS bombers in our violence list?
Here is my handy guide:
Lone wolfish American attacker who sees gov't as threat to personal freedom: bomber, tax protester, survivalist, separatist
Group of Americans bombing/kidnapping to protest U.S. policies on war/poverty/personal freedom/ – radical left-wing movement, right-wing separatists
All foreign groups or foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American gov't: terrorists
Mark Hosenball , Investigative Correspondent
Certainly McVeigh + Unabomber
Patrick Enright, Senior Articles Editor
Yeah, maybe the distinction depends too on whom you're attacking—if it's the people you think wronged you (like the IRS), you're a protester/separatist/etc., and if it's indiscriminate killing of clearly innocent people, you're a terrorist.
Jeneen Interlandi, Reporter
I agree with Kathy. Right or wrong, we definitely reserve the label 'terrorist' for foreign attackers. Even the anthrax guy (not that we ever found him) wasn't consistently referred to as terrorist.
Dan Stone, Reporter
Yes, media reaction comes down to ID. This guy was a regular guy-next-door Joe Schmo. Terrorists have beards and live in caves. He was also an American, so targeting the IRS seems more a political statement—albeit a crazy one—whereas Abdulmutallab was an attack on our freedom. It's kind of the idea that an American can talk smack about America, but when it comes from someone foreign, we rally together. Or in the case of the Christmas bomber, vie for self-righteousness.
Eve Conant, Reporter
Isn't the ho-hum reaction in part the simple psychology behind the fact that a) no one likes the IRS and b) he's an American (so closest he might get is “domestic terrorist” in terms of labels) who doesn't hate Americans but hates an institution. The act is horrible, but somehow the motivation is perceived as less offensive. As one conservative at the CPAC conference told me, Stack simply “made a poor life choice.” There's no way anyone would say that about the underwear bomber.
“made a poor life choice”!!!!!
I'm more interested in the comparison between the two than a taxonomic debate which, while interesting and part of the story, feels familiar as an overall structure.
I don't think you can separate the definition of terrorism from the victims—in fact, that's a key part of the definition, that they're civilian victims rather than military ones.
But yes, this is the taxonomic/semantic argument we were less interested in, so …
Michael Isikoff , Investigative Correspondent
ok, just to weigh in on this—I think some of the comments miss what I take to be the fundamental distinction. The underpants bomber, for all his ineptitude, was equipped and dispatched by a foreign enemy—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—whose ultimate leader (bin Laden) has declared war on the United States and who has demonstrated his willingness and intent to inflict mass casualties on our civilian population. That makes underpants man a terrorist and had he been captured overseas, would have made himan enemy combatant—and why the Obama administration dispatches the U.S. military and Predator drones to destroy the people who sent him here. Similarly, the Fort Hood shooter may have been a disturbed “lone wolf” but he was in ideological alignment and in communication with a member of the same foreign enemy.
That makes them both terrorists.
The Austin tax protestor, the anthrax scientist wacko, the Unabomber—all did heinous things that we can describe any way we want—certainly what they did were terrorist acts— but they all remain a very different kettle of fish, which is why Mr. underpants man gets more attention that Austin tax protestor flying plane into building.
I am not suggesting domestic groups couldn't be terrorists—in fact, the FBI does have a domestic terrorist unit—which covers EarthFirsters, militia groups, anti-abortion fanatics who kill doctors, etc. All of those can certainly qualify as terrorists. But in addressing Devin's original question—why all the fuss about underpants man and isn't everybody else terrorists as well?— I was trying to explain why underpants man was a much bigger terrorist deal that explains why we pay him so much more attention. The FBI gets skittish when you ask what they do about domestic terrorist groups because they clearly realize that the line between domestic terrorist and political dissident can sometimes be a blurry one—which is why they are more restricted in what they can do to combat the threat against the purely domestics—they cannot get FISA warrants, for example. And as for your point—haven't domestic groups declared war on the government and demonstrated a willingness to inflict mass casualties—well—I'm sure some domestic wackos have said wacko things, but I cant off the top o f my head think of a serious domestic group that has openly declared “war” on the United States or one currently in existence that has a documented history of inflicting mass casualties on civilians or announced its intention to do so in the future—all of which applies to Al Qaeda.
Kate Dailey, Articles Editor (Health)
Where does Scott Roeder fit into all this? CNN referred to him as an “activist.” He's tied to extremist anti-abortion groups —though perhaps the evidence that he was directly outfitted/trained by them is less clear, and the group denied involvement. Still, he was following their teachings and it was their propaganda that singled out tiller, published his personal data, etc. Does a terrorist have to be “claimed” by the political group s/he kills for?
Ben Adler, Articles Editor (National Affairs)
Scott Roeder was definitely a terrorist and should have been called one. The reason those guys kill abortion docs is to discourage others from performing abortions. Trying to bully ppl thru fear of violence into behaving a certain way that suits your political views strikes me as the epitome of terrorism, arguably clearer cut than this guy in Austin, although I think he is a terrorist too. With Roeder the cause and effect he seeks is even more obvious. And Planned Parenthood will tell you it's been quite effective. Going into one of their clinics is like entering the pentagon thanks to roeder et al, which is probably his other goal: make women afraid or uncomfortable to get abortions bc the providers have to be extra secretive and security conscious.
I continue to be fascinated by the divergent reactions between Austin Wacko and Underpants Man, and I think it goes much deeper than the taxonomy of what is a “terrorist.” (One simple reason: Tiger Woods didn't step on the Underpants saga the very next day. Sigh.)
Fundamentally, I'm with Dan: a Texan white guy named Joe Stack isn't as interesting / enraging / anxiety-inducing as a Nigerian Muslim named Abdulmutallab. I'm also with Eve: Stack's philosophy, unlike Abdulmutallab's, is pretty kosher with many—maybe even most—Americans. We're basically with him right up to the burn-down-your-house-and-fly-a-plane-into-a-building part of the story. Other than that part, right on, Joe Stack! (Heck, newly minted Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown all but said as much in a very clumsy TV appearance about this story the day after it happened.)
But I'm most intrigued by a couple of things Mike suggested. First, that Abdulmutallab's actions fit into a much larger terrorism narrative that has stretched out for years, resulted in ongoing wars and decided presidential elections. Isolated, Underpants Man's actions are surely milder than Stack's—it still amazes me that a man flying a plane into a building doesn't make us flinch much more—but Stack's actions are just that: isolated.
Then again, what if they aren't? That's the other thing that intrigued me about what Mike wrote: “The FBI gets skittish when you ask what they do about domestic terrorist groups because they clearly realize that the line between domestic terrorist and political dissident can sometimes be a blurry one.” One thing that could've stretched out this Austin Wacko story out quite a bit longer is if the mainstream media had been bolder about connecting it to the larger anti-tax political phenomenon in this country today: the Tea Party. But most of us weren't willing to go there. Why? Because we are perceived as being dismissive and condescending toward the movement—OK, we *are* dismissive and condescending toward the movement. In short, we tend to treat them like wackos and we are gun-shy about going the full Monty and suggesting they are this close to being *violent* wackos. The FBI is skittish about that blurry line, and so is the media. Better to leave it alone and move onto Tiger Woods. Hey, how about THAT guy, huh?
Another important point: preventability. It's a lot easier to imagine (whether or not it is actually easier) that with the right mix of intelligence and security we can keep explosives off commercial jets. An individual flying his little plane somewhere seems (whether this is true, or should be, or not) an inevitable fact of life, like car crashes. Hence it does not trigger a review of procedures at DHS, or political point scoring.
Also, someone may have noted already, but the low number of victims, relative to the 200 + who would have been killed if undie-man was successful, has something to do with it. There is something about dying in an explosion or crash on a plane that Americans find uniquely terrifying.
if you look at patterns of extreme-right-wing violence—and I have been collecting some string on this, which maybe it's about time to tie together—then the Austin airplane guy's actions don't look quite so isolated. For example this guy was grabbed by authorities in New Jersey less than two weeks ago. “Ready for 'Armageddon'” says the headline in the Gloucester Daily Times, about a man who got busted with a stockpile of hand grenades, 20 guns, handcuffs, camouflage clothing, handcuffs and assorted other military paraphernalia. The folks at Talkingpointsmemo reported that he was a Tea Party activist and big fan of Sarah Palin. How is it not terrorism if this guy at some point goes bats and shoots at or throws grenades into a crowd? Just because such a person is a fan of Sarah Palin, of course, doesn't make her a terrorist or even an inspiration to terrorists in the same way that Osama or Anwar Awlaki both deliberately have set out to be. But if such a guy goes bananas and killed a bunch of people—even if his personal views were so extreme (like the Unabomber's) that he constituted a political party of one—if he sets out to deliberately impose or advertise his views to the world by blowing up a bunch of innocent people, then to my mind that's terrorism. But I guess it's easier and more convenient—politically correct, even—to use that word to describe someone if they have a beard.
Thanks to Drudge — no Osama either, though perhaps a political party of one—we now know that the Austin plane crash guy had a famous admirer. This doesn't make Wesley Snipes a terrorist or even a sympathizer. but it does make you wonder how much difference there is between some of the American cultural icons (like Snipes and maybe Glenn Beck but not Drudge or Palin) who enable or validate some views on the lunatic fringe and the rabid Wahhabi clerics in the Muslim world who aren't terrorists, but foster a culture in which they breed.
Michael Hirsh , Senior Editor, Washington Web Editor
Isikoff pretty much has it right. Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism co-opted the term “terrorist” after 9/11. No one had any problem calling Timothy McVeigh a domestic terrorist before 9/11.
And Stack is pretty isolated. There was the same fear after OK City. But it turns out there aren't as many copycat killings of this nature as there are, say, school shootings.
My comments: It's interesting to note that the media called Nidal Hassan a terrorist even though he wasn't foreign or part of any foreign terrorist group which according to Newsweek is the media definition of a terrorist. He wouldn't be considered a terrorist since he was in the same boat as Joseph Stack, the pilot who flew into the IRS building in Texas. Both of them were frustrated with government institutions. One didn't want to go fight overseas and the other didn't like the IRS. They both took extreme violent measures of terror to let off their steam and one was labeled a terrorist while the other just “made a bad choice”.