When Is — and Isn't — Crime Considered Terrorism?

New York terror attack bike lane
Cyclists ride past a sign from law enforcement agencies seeking information on the Oct. 31, 2017 terror attack in New York City. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

When the news of another public or mass murder in the U.S. breaks — an almost daily occurrence it seems — people are forced to stumble their way through a series of inescapable emotions. The psychological stages go something like this:

Shock, revulsion, fear, curiosity, anxiety, anger, numbness. and, finally (much like the well-known stages of grief), depression and — perhaps — acceptance.


Somewhere along that arc, too — increasingly more toward the beginning, it seems — comes an inevitable question:

Was it terrorism?

In an era of crazed gunmen, suicide bombers and madmen behind the wheel, that question is way more easily asked than answered. That's partly because the legal definition of the word terrorism is as murky and toxic as the minds of the people who carry it out.

"Every terrorism textbook and every terrorism class begins with the definition problem," says Jane Cramer, Ph.D. a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. Cramer holds a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Most people have to be satisfied with no definition."

The Merriam-Webster-izing of the term terrorism has become so tricky in fact, so fraught with politics and legal pitfalls that, even after decades of trying, the United Nations can't come to an agreement on what constitutes terrorism or what a terrorist looks like. That's not all that surprising, maybe, considering that what one nation calls a cowardly and despicable act, another might term a patriotic or holy duty.

At least within the borders of the United States, the definition seems a little less troublesome. Several federal laws and regulations list some variation of the terms, but the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines it as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

Still, even among Americans, it's not that easy. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof killed nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015 it was immediately considered by most as a hate crime and a terroristic act. (Roof is an avowed white supremacist; his victims all were black.)

Then-FBI director James Comey, though, would not use the T-word.

"Terrorism is violence done or threatened," Comey said in a press conference three days after the shooting, "in order to try to influence a public body or citizen, so it's more of a political act ... again, based on what I know ... I don't see it as a political act."

That failure to immediately flag people like Roof (or even Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock who killed 58 and wounded another 500-plus Oct. 1, 2017) as terrorists rankles those who see the issue often falling along racial and religious lines. When Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, a 29-year-old native of Uzbekistan, for one example, killed eight people in New York City this past October 31, 2017, by plowing a rented truck into pedestrians and bikers on a bike path, the FBI slapped federal terrorism charges on him less than two days later.

President Donald Trump didn't wait nearly as long. He labeled it a terrorist attack that day, tweeting: "My thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack. God and your country are with you!"

Mother Emanual church Charleston Emanuel AME Church
People gather in front of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina to attend the first service after a white supremacist shot and killed nine on June 21, 2015. The incident was not considered terrorism.
Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Officially tagging acts like these as terrorism (or not) is rarely done without thought toward the legal and moral implications. No terrorism charges were filed against Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, even though Hasan told investigators he shot the soldiers because they were "going against the Islamic Empire," according to the New York Times. The reasoning: The Army could more easily and swiftly try him on charges of murder and attempted murder without the hassle of proving he was a terrorist.

Hassan is now in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, awaiting execution after being convicted of 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder. Without designating Hassan a terrorist, though, his victims can't get combat-related benefits or receive Purple Hearts because the attack was considered workplace violence and not combat, the Times says.

The labeling of terrorists (or not labeling them) isn't a particularly new phenomenon. More than 30 years ago, then-president Ronald Reagan pushed a foreign policy that included financial backing for "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua, the so-called "Contras;" others accused the U.S. of state-backed terrorism. Many other presidents and heads of state all over the world have taken similar steps in the name of national interest.

The objection to calling someone a terrorist lies largely with the word itself — terrorism. It is a term reserved for the worst of the worst. For many Americans, it seems to be saved for those from outside our borders who aim to kill innocent Americans.

"It's a loaded term. It's meant to make somebody evil," Cramer says. "When everybody, after this last incident, notices that Trump wouldn't use 'terrorism' after Charlottesville [where a white supremacist killed counter-protester Heather Heyer Aug. 12, 2017] and uses it immediately after New York ... It was like, 'Wow, we only use it for Muslim or dark-skinned people.' That's why this is coming up all the time. It's loaded."

It's probably not surprising that many politicians — not just the president — use "terror" as a way to influence minds and gain votes. The defeat of the terrorist Islamic State was a big issue in the 2016 election. Immigration reform has also been tied to keeping terrorists from our shores.

"That's why politicians use [the word] but academics try not to. They're trying to win supporters and make sides," Cramer says. "Academics are trying to analyze things. That's the difference."

Whatever the perils or problems in defining the term, whatever the way it's used by various groups, however the legal system decides to employ it, the threat of terrorism is something we encounter every day. In our schools. In our airports. In almost every aspect of our lives.

All that's proof of one enduring, unfortunate fact: Even if we disagree on what terrorism is, we know it's out there.