Terrorism As Emotional Catharsis (Update)

As news from San Berdoo spread across the internet, some were calling to slow down the rush to jump upon every bit of news, noting that even “confirmed” claims swiftly became unconfirmed, and not to leap to unwarranted conclusions.

There were huge swings of information as things got sorted out. We now know that 14 people were killed, and at least 17 wounded.  We know that two shooters are dead, though the third, if there was a third, is alive but may not have been tied to the shooting at all. We also now know somewhat better why this happened.

Chief Jarrod Burguan of the San Bernardino Police Department identified the two suspects as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27. Mr. Farook was born in the United States. Family members say they were married and had a 6-month-old daughter.

Mr. Farook, an environmental inspector, had been employed with the county health department for five years. On Wednesday morning he attended a holiday party for the department at the Inland Regional Center, a sprawling facility that provides services for thousands of people with disabilities. He left “angry” after a dispute of some sort, the chief said, and returned with Ms. Malik around 11 a.m. — heavily armed.

“There had to be some degree of planning that went into this,” Chief Burguan said. “I don’t think they just ran home and put on these tactical clothes.”

These bits of information are incongruous with the hysteria that permeated social media as the news filtered out.  Despite those who urged that people await facts before leaping blindly to shrieks of terrorism, many couldn’t control their emotions.

It’s terrorism. What else could it be?

This rhetorical trick of illogic was not easily addressed. When screams are grounded in emotional vagaries, there is nothing to be said.  Thoughts are subject to rational debate. Emotions are not. No one can tell another person not to feel whatever it is they are determined to feel, regardless of reason.

But why this compulsion to characterize unknown conduct as terrorism?  What purpose is served by labeling at all, no less in advance of facts?

Terrorism is a legal term.  It’s defined in 18 U.S.C. § 2331.

(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;

(B) appear to be intended—

 (I) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

The only utility of the definition is to enhance punishment for the offense, as the underlying conduct, the murder and maiming of others, is a crime regardless of whether or not it’s terrorism.

There is no comfort to be taken in calling the killing of others “mere” murder. Murder is hardly trivial. Murder is a terrible crime, a horrible crime.  And yet, it fails to assuage the emotional need for something more horrible, more terrible. Not even adding the word “mass,” to note the fact that the murder of multiple people was committed, cuts it anymore.

The reaction to my having twitted the link to this legal definition was curious.  While some accepted the premise that there was a legal definition to the word, others challenged whether the word “terrorism” was constrained by a legal definition.  In other words, if they “felt” that conduct was “terrorism,” why wasn’t that good enough?  Why should their feelings about what the word means be limited by some legal constraint that denied their agency to use the word in any way that made them feel better?

No one can stop a person from shrieking about terrorism, if that’s what they’re inclined to do.  That misses the point; raising definitions isn’t some de facto hand over the mouth of hysterical screamers, silencing them with legal definitions. They have the physical capacity to shriek all they want, if that’s what they feel they must do.

But what this seeks to accomplish is provide the constraints of meaning when hysterical people are whipping up the crowd, other people who are long on emotion and short on knowledge. In the absence of facts, and without the limits of meaning, one can cry out the word terrorism to fan the flames of emotion. It’s their right to hop aboard the train of stupidity and meaninglessness, if it’s heading in the direction they need to go.

Yet, this accomplishes nothing. It illuminates nothing. It adds nothing worthwhile to other people’s understanding of events. At best, it’s cathartic, which speaks more of the shrieker’s emotions than anything substantive.

Ironically, the retort to those who called for calm, to await facts, was grounded in racism. There were cries that if the shooters were brown skinned, with “funny names,” then you people would rush to call it terrorism. But when the shooters were initially described as ‘white,’ you call to withhold judgment.  As it turns out, the shooters did have “funny names,” and they no more turn the mass murder into terrorism than anything else.  There was an angry debate over the racial implications, all of which was insanely backward. That’s what happens when you engage in the argument driven by emotions.

And to what end?  For all the shrieking, the rush to pointless assumption, the arguments over who’s the biggest racial hater, a day later would provide sufficient information to provide answers, or at least the basis for reasoned speculation where the facts are inadequate.  Many of the twits in support of this post have since been deleted. They were stupid when posted, and make their writers look like total fools a day later. Yet, that doesn’t stop people from going public in the heat of the moment.

What does shrieking about “terrorism” add to anything?  Is it the most emotionally laden word available to us, and too many people feel some need to make a horrible mass murder even more horrible, even more emotional? In an age where glances become rape, words become violence, is there an emotional inflation pushing people to exaggerate every feeling, struggle to find sufficient hype to capture their need for ever more outrageous expression?

Are we beyond the point where facts matter, where words have definitions, where calls for calm aren’t met with attacks of racism or sexism, or some other ism as the case may be? Do you really want to be that hysterical shrieking fool?

Update:  At the WSJLawBlog, Joe Palazzolo attempts to tackle this question from the outside:

The bureau, being a federal law enforcement agency, hews to two definitions enshrined in federal code, one for domestic terrorism and one for international terrorism.​

International terrorism “occurs primarily outside” of the U.S but not necessarily: It may “transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”Domestic terrorism, as defined under Title 18, is virtually the same, except it occurs primarily inside the U.S.

Not particularly informative yet, though defining separate offenses under separate names is always good to know. But to what end?

Categorizing attacks as terrorism serves practical as well as legal purposes, ensuring that the FBI will be the lead investigative agency rather than local authorities, legal experts said. The definition can also bring to bear partnerships between the FBI and local law enforcement known as Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

Then again, there isn’t much to investigate once the perpetrators are dead, and there is nothing to prevent local or state police from seeking joint or FBI intervention.  But in the minds of many, federal involvement brings magic to the cause, except when it starts with federal involvement, in which case the feds are generally frowned upon as violent, deceitful scum. Go figure.

Two researchers at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands found more than 200 definitions of terrorism scattered across the world, many of them employed by governments. Most share concepts of violence, political goals and causing terror.

Historian Walter Laqueur has summed of the variation this way: “In the real world, there is not one terrorism, but a variety of terrorisms. Any attempt to find a common denominator, a formula as suitable for Irish 19th-century terrorism as for narcoterrorism in Colombia or al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, is bound to fail.”​

And this is why the definition is best grounded in statute. That humanities academics enjoy arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin elucidate nothing. If we’re to use words, there must be a common definition. Adding the word “terrorism” either means something or it’s just another word designed to create hysteria.

On another front, the New York Times Room for Debate raises the question of whether it matters if a mass murder is characterized as terrorism, and offers only banal ideological rationalizations concluding that it only matters for the purpose of furthering political agendas. Why? Because the Times chose debaters whose hammer is political, thus reducing the nail to ideology. Yet again, the “debate” serves to illuminate nothing of value.

30 thoughts on “Terrorism As Emotional Catharsis (Update)

  1. bmaz

    I went through this on both Dylan Roof and Colorado Planned Parenthood when everybody and their brother were demanding it be deemed terrorism. The usual refrain, even from normally halfway clear headed lawyers (no, not criminal lawyers who generally know better), was that it was “obviously terrorism” under §2331(5) and I was a horrible human for refusing to acknowledge that fact. Apparently even lawyers cannot tell the difference between a general definitional provision and specific crime charging provisions, of which there are none that line up for mass murder with a gun. A bomb, yes, because bombs are magically now “WMD’s”, but not a gun. Such details simply do not phase the emotional screamers.

    1. paul

      I guess i read B) points i and ii as being disjunctive…in which case the territorially american crimes would seem meant to intimidate and coerce planned parenthood for colorado and blacks in the case of dylan roof. Even not reading that disjunctively, one could argue that it appears the perpetrators of those acts wanted the government policy to change with respect to their targets. So…terrorism?

      1. SHG Post author

        Read your comment back to yourself, eliminating all the wiggle words you were compelled to use, and see if you can answer your own question. When you have to resort to “seem,” “could argue,” “appear,” to twist facts to meet elements, ask yourself why you are trying so desperately to satisfy a definition?

        What purpose is served by straining to turn a horrific crime, regardless of what pejorative word is used to describe it, into “terrorism”? What drives the need to characterize crime as “terrorism”?

        1. paul

          I recognize the wiggle words… but B) says appear to be intended. Now i dont know if that is appears to a reasonable person, a reasonable cop, or a reasonable murderer / maybe terrorist.

          Now I don’t rush to label things terrorism and never thought of the mentioned incidents as terrorism. The definition has wiggle words in it and i can see how some people might, should they be so inclined, be able to define those incidents as terrorism. As to why people rush to do thay so often i have no clue. Perhaps it is the internet hyperbolic outrage machine.

          1. SHG Post author

            Yes, (B) includes the wiggle words “appear to be intended” to water down proof of the element at trial, but it’s still a factual inquiry. “People kill bunch of other people” proves intent to kill. It tells us nothing factually as to intent.

  2. bmaz

    Paul – Come on man, even the DOJ does not read it that way, and never has. Also, what does it add? There are multiple first degree homicides at play in all. You cannot punish a person any more that that.

    1. paul

      True. I thought this post was more about people (especially on social media) and the undefining of words such as violence and rape. Given the phrasing of this definition i thought the mental gymnastics wouldnt have to be as twisted as those used in the case of rape and violence.

  3. chris

    There were breathless tweets and irresponsible speculation, surely, done by those who tweet breathlessly and speculate irresponsibly. Chiming in with the legal definition of terrorism, though, adds nothing.

    The fact that terrorism has a spefific legal meaning does not obviate its general meaning. Some professional, avocational or regulatory group arrogating a common word as term of art is sometimes necessary, usually shorthand and always exclusionary. Military types and groupies will often tell you that it is incorrect to call an AR-15 a gun, as it is a weapon, and guns are giant things on ships. They are wrong; an AR-15 is a gun, regardless of their having reclassified it.

    Requiring adherence to legal definitions be is even worse than that, however. You spend an awful lot of time and words here asserting that legislators, judges and prosecutors get things wrong. If the law is wrong, the definition is flawed. If the charging or adjudication is wrong, the application is flawed. Is Darren Wilson a murderer? Yes, regardless of legal niceties to the contrary, whether definitional or procedural. If I see my naighbor punch the letter carrier, may I say he assaulted her, even if what occured would only be battery to a lawyer, or is the language itself now beholden to the legal profession?

    The word terrorism has and has had a general, and generally well understood, meaning. I don’t know if using a tailored definition to alter the frame of discourse is the same game as using feelz, but they are played in the same ballpark.

    N.B. This all comes across raher more tetchy and antagonistic than intended. I remain a staunch fan.

    1. SHG Post author

      The word terrorism has and has had a general, and generally well understood, meaning.

      The dictionary defines terrorism as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal,” which is generally consistent with the legal definition of the word. But when applied to a specific set of facts and circumstances that constitute a crime, then the legal definition matters.

      Or, as you argue, no definition matters and people can humpty-dumpty their way through life, secure in the righteousness of words meaning whatever they want them to mean.

      “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

      ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

      ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

      ― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

      If the purpose is to characterize specific criminal conduct as “terrorism,” then the only definition that matters is the legal definition. Unless you’re humpty dumpty.

      1. Hal

        While it may come across as a quibble, and doesn’t have any legal weight, the best definition of terrorism that I have encountered came from BG Russ Howard, then at the center at West Point studying terrorism; “Terrorism is politically motivated violence, by non state actors, targeting non combatants”. Since first hearing this I’ve found that it makes it easier to decide whether something is actually an act of terrorism. It also serves to give the lie to the “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” rubric.


        1. SHG Post author

          It’s a good definition as well. Notice that the definitions may vary in specific word choice, but all clearly convey the same meaning?

        2. David M.

          So if my friend tells me he’s voting for Trump and I give him a noogie, I’m a terrorist? As long as I don’t work for the government?

          1. Hal

            I think it does, though I suppose someone w/ a specific predispostion could act on impulse when an opportunity presents itself.

            Not being argumentative, but what difference do you think premeditation would make?

      2. Roger

        “If the purpose is to characterize specific criminal conduct as ‘terrorism,’ then the only definition that matters is the legal definition.”

        I don’t follow you on twitter, so maybe I’m missing the context of all of the tweets you’re complaining about, but most of the stuff I see wants to call an act terrorism (or not terrorism) to make a political point, not to try to get a sentence enhancer on a couple of dead suspects.

        USC § 2331 provides “a” definition of terrorism, but not “the” definition of terrorism. We talked about terrorism long before the statute was enacted, and we would keep talking about terrorism if § 2331 were repealed tomorrow. If it were repealed, would we then need to discuss terrorism only in terms of 22 USC § 2656f(d)(2), which defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”? Or should we go to 8 USC § 1182(a)(3)(B)(ii) and its lengthy definition of “terrorist activity.” Or would we need to go to the regs and define terrorism only as including “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,” as provided in 28 CFR 0.85(l), which requires the Director of the FBI to exercise lead agency responsibility in crimes involving terrorist activities?

        In my state of Missouri, despite all of the hullabaloo over prison rape, we’ve virtually never had a male inmate raped in any of our prisons. That’s no great reason for rejoicing, because our statutory definition of rape requires “penetration, however slight, of the female sex organ by the male sex organ.” So there’s damn little rape in our men’s prisons, but plenty of forcible sodomy. The fact that almost none of what the public calls “prison rape” is actually rape doesn’t delegitimize the discussion about inmates being sexually assaulted. I don’t get the need to call vicious attacks “terrorism” or “hate crimes” or anything else other than vicious attacks, but many other people think those are important distinctions.

        If you’re defending someone in a criminal prosecution, the statutory definition matters. For the political discussion, though, it’s hard to see why that definition should trump all of the others.

        1. SHG Post author

          Making “political points” is the foremost excuse for the obliteration of meaning. There is no legitimacy to people manufacturing their own amorphous definition of words under the rubric of “political points.” Everyone is not entitled to their own definition of words because it serves their purpose.

          Had someone challenged my 2331 definition with another statute (assuming their was a meaningful nuanced distinction), that would be fair. No one did. Not at all. It was just, “but TERRORISM!!!” We can quibble over the specifics of a hard definition, but there is no quibble over a definition versus whatever anyone kinda sorta feels like it should be.

          Your “prison rape” analogy is inapt for numerous obvious reasons. You should know better.

          1. Roger

            No disagreement from me that words mean something, and that people on both sides of an issue should be held to a consistent definition of the terms they’re using. I just get twitchy and bristle a bit when people take a criminal statute that was intended for a specific purpose and suggest that it must govern discussions about a general issue, which is what I (probably incorrectly) saw in your post.

            I’ve already taken up more of your time and space than is seemly, so I’ll shut up and leave this alone.

            1. SHG Post author

              Not at all. The problem remains that a definition must be used or it’s just stupid noise. I think 2331 is the right definition, this being all about a crime. But all the definitions bear on the same point, and all require supporting facts that didn’t exist. Facile conclusions, such as “but what else could it be?” serve only to screw people’s heads up further, obfuscate the meaning of terrorism and instill ever-increasing fear and hysteria.

              And I think we agree on this, even if we might quibble over the specific statute, dictionary or discipline that provides the best definition. There must be a definition. There must be facts to support it.

  4. John Barleycorn

    There is only one person on the planet that can save the twits from the Tummy Territories from the terrorists before Twitter starts encouraging terrorism to insist a twit is not a tweet because a tweeter can not be a twit or a terrorist who is not a twit will tweet you to a taste of the wiggle.

    I hate to ask Fubar, but it’s true that it is only you that stop this wiggling whirl.

    And if you have time, is it really so could it be true that more than tickle words can really wiggle?

    I know I shouldn’t want to know, but I am with such fright that I might not be able to move, not even wiggle my toes or jiggle or twitch, if it is so that words can move up and down and side to side with movement and more in mind.

    And does this mean, could it be so that an agenda that wiggles its words to squirm and wobble may also wag and dance as it wallows the wills of every hollow willow?

  5. Fyodor

    People want to call it terrorism because all of our notions of due process and relative balancing of risks and costs go completely out the window if it’s treated as terrorism. You can’t get someone thrown off your plane because he looks vaguely like the kind of person who would murder you.


    @Bmaz: “…..You cannot punish a person any more that that….”

    That’s where you have forgotten Scot would also give them cancer .

  7. anonymous coward

    I think expressions of intent can help define an act. If the gunman yells “die you Scunthorpe who made my life miserable” it’s a personal beef and should not be labeled terrorism. On the other hand “die infidel dogs!” is clearly religiously motivated and more properly classed as terrorism.
    It doesn’t make murder any less wrong or death any less tragic, but maybe it stops some of the stupider responses.

    1. SHG Post author

      So if someone plans ahead to commit an act of otherwise definable terrorism, but yells out (because he’s planned ahead and followed your sage advice), Scunthorpe is a poopy head, he beats the enhancement?

      Q: Are you sure he said Scunthorpe, not scum throat, a popular term of hatred by terrorists?
      A: Well, now I’m not sure. Maybe.

  8. bmaz

    I think substantive criminal law probably ought be run off of the momentary emotions of the general public.

    Because this is a nation of whiny men and women and not established law.

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