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.
The first of these images is why the second of these images is important. pic.twitter.com/2wq751BvCA
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) December 2, 2015
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.