I recently wrote a post about the definition of terrorism, the public’s perceptions about terrorism, and the importance of the use of the word to the work of homeland security professionals. The conversation about this topic has continued on … Homeland Security Watch, as well as in professional circles.
There are differences among professionals within the homeland security enterprise about whether the word “terrorism” should be a applied to events such as the Canadian Parliament attack and the Sydney Cafe Hostage Incident. A recent conversation that took place via email between homeland security educators provides insight into the terrorism terminology tussle. The emails are a continuation of a discussion prompted by a colleague who shared analysis by Scott Stewart of Stratfor Global Intelligence entitled “The Sydney Hostage Incident was a Classic Case of Grassroots Terrorism”. (Stratfor is a subscription service and I could not therefore attach the article. However, you may be able to get the article free here by providing an email address.)
A key phrase in Stewart’s analysis addresses the issue. Stewart writes:
Despite Monis’ reported mental instability, the sequence of events in this incident clearly demonstrate that he was acting in a planned, logical manner designed to accomplish his goals — however delusional those goals may have been.
Thus Stewart makes the case that this attack, and others like it, are terrorism. But some do not agree. Here is the email conversation:
Clinical Psychologist and Homeland Security Educator [responding to the article]:
Hmm – Hoffman would say it’s terrorism if there is a political purpose behind the attacks – that would be necessary, but is it sufficient that the perpetrator’s message is political? But (and I’ll confess to skimming this) I didn’t see where the cafe or the patrons were emblematic of some political regime? Shouldn’t the target also serve as a symbol?
For example, the Pakistan school shooting by Taliban – the school is a military sponsored/funded school that the Taliban perceived as a training ground for future military personnel (though Pakistani’s argue there were lots of civilians’ children in attendance and is not a military prep school). The school is a symbol of the military, government and political regime the Taliban wants to change/eliminate. The King David Hotel, the Edward R. Murrah building, etc – all symbols, as well as civilian/noncombatant locales.
This dude sounds like a garden variety criminal. Self appointed cleric, currently charged with murder of a loved-one (though killing your ex wife is probably not a symbol of great love). So he slapped a pseudo-political label onto his act and was active in social media with other extremist groups…I just don’t buy it. My clinical opinion? Lone Nut.
Related: this is the problem with having no agreed-upon, operational definition of terrorism.
Homeland Security Educator 2:
I think the interesting question in both this instance and the Canadian Parliament attack is, as both incidents were perpetrated by individuals of questionable mental stability, does mental status matter? Couldn’t it be said that anyone that is willing to put explosives on themselves (in their underwear even!) is likely not in perfect mental health, i.e. a lone nut as the article describes. I think there is a danger in calling these politically-motivated, pre-planned attacks something other than terrorism, because it reduces the importance of the homeland security element involved in preventing / responding to these attacks. The HLS element provides the vehicle for collaboration among agencies, countries, etc, and additional resources. Crimes by lone nuts are addressed by local resources, and if we rely on local resources to do everything, we will be back where we were prior to 9/11, where some agencies had information, nothing was shared with the local agencies that ultimately had to respond, and no one was putting the pieces together.
Why does it matter? Who cares if we call it “terrorism” or not?
It matters because the use of the word terrorism is important to the funding and resource support for anti-terrorism efforts in the US and abroad. The recognition of the threat of ongoing terrorist attacks is important for the political framework that surrounds international homeland security (or domestic security, or civil protection, or whatever) efforts. The correct description of these events as terrorism reminds us, the public-at-large and our policy-makers, of the importance of the collaborative framework of homeland security, and its essential role in preventing, responding to and recovering from these types of attacks.
– This post appeared originally on the Homeland Security Roundtable.