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Arguments of Definition: Terrorism

Clarice Hester

Arizona State University



In recent years the use of the word ‘terrorism’ or the lack thereof has sparked some controversy

in the United States. With recent events such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas and other school

shootings, many Americans have been left wondering when an act of violence qualifies as

terrorism. According to, terrorism is defined as the use of violence and threats to

intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes. Some people believe any crime that affects

the lives of many and causes widespread panic should be considered terrorism regardless of

motive. These people feel that when events such as these are not labeled terrorism, by the media

or government officials, it is due to racial or religious prejudices. In reality, for an act of violence

to be considered terrorism, the perpetrators must be trying to convey a political message or be

formally affiliated with a terrorist group; simply causing ‘terror’ is not evidence enough.

Keywords: terrorism, political, shooting, race, religion


Arguments of Definition: Terrorism

On September 11, 2001 members from the terrorist organization Al Qaeda successfully

hijacked four american commercial airliners. Two of the airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers,

or World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one into a Pennsylvanian field. After this

massive tragedy President George Washington Bush declared a global war on terror, enacting

strict counterterrorism policies on all terrorist groups and the countries that harbored them. Since

that fateful day there have been many other terrorist attacks on the United States; there has also

been many other instances of violent crime. In recent years the line between the two have been

blurred. With the influx of crimes such as mass shootings and school shootings, many Americans

have been left wondering, “What constitutes terrorism and why aren’t these events considered


According to terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of violence and

intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. The most crucial part of

this definition is the word ‘political’. In order for an act of violence or crime to be considered

terrorism, the perpetrator must have a clear political motive or be formally affiliated with an

established terrorist organization. A lot of the public chooses to ignore the bit about terrorism

needing to be politically motivated and believe that if a person causes widespread panic, terror in

essence, that is enough to qualify that person as a terrorist. Because of this common belief and

the recent shootings not being labeled terrorism by the media and/or government officials, people

are starting to believe the reason they are not labeled as such is to due to religious and racial


Being an active Twitter user, when a violent crime occurs, Twitter is instantly ablaze with

accusations of terrorism and racism. Seeing these inflammatory or emotionally charged tweets it

is difficult not to intervene with the Federal definition that clearly states the act must be

politically motivated or the perpetrators must be affiliated with some terrorist organization. Most

often the word is used to stereotype members of the Muslim faith, associating “towel heads" and

other derogatory terms with terrorism. Having said that, I am not part of the group the perceived

definition effects; however in the paper I will set out to prove that race and religion have little

bearing when deciding if something terrorism.

Most news outlets and professionals will agree that for a crime to be labeled terrorism it

must have a clear motive, a political one. In events like the attack on the World Trade Center on

September 11, 2001, the perpetrators were very clearly affiliated with the terrorist organization

Al Qaeda. Sometimes the goal of the criminals is not so clear, but nothing can be labeled

terrorism by state without an intensive investigation. The “Federal Definition of Terrorism”

states “that terrorism is an act that "is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government

by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct," and is also a violation of

any number of prohibited acts, including: "killing or attempted killing during an attack on a

Federal facility with a dangerous weapon," and "killing or attempted killing of officers and

employees of the United States”” (Wallace, 2010).

Some people believe that acts of violence such as mass shootings and protests conducted

by members of the counterculture are acts of terrorism simply because they cause fear and/or go

against societal norms. When events such as the shooting in Las Vegas are not labeled terrorism

they feel it is because the criminals are Caucasian Christians who simply get branded as ‘anti-

social’ and ‘loners’. These people believe that if the perpetrators of these crimes were Muslim or

people of color, there would be no hesitation to label them as terrorists. ““If Muslims committed

half, or even one out of every four of these incidents, Americans would frame the acts as a

national security issue and use the word ‘terrorism’”” (Richinick, 2014).

In the past, there have been very clear examples of terrorism: the bombings that occurred

during the Boston Marathon, and the Beslan school hostage crisis (to name one outside of the

United States). These crimes have been committed by people formally associated with terrorist

groups and people pushing a political agenda. They have set a precedent for what terrorism is

and how it is responded to. That is why when other events are being investigated for evidence of

terrorism, they are compared to events like these.

A good question to ask is why, as Americans, do we feel the need to have such concrete

definitions for words such as ‘terrorism’? The best answer is that for words that carry such

weight and such importance, it is vital that we have a universal understanding of how and when

to use them. “"Having a precise definition of a word gives you a kind of power over not only the

word, but over the thing itself," Lakoff says. "[People think] if we could only pin down precisely

whether something is an act of terrorism or a hate crime, or just a simple crime or a war, in other

cases, we would have a handle on it, we would know what to do. We would be able to feel more

comfortable about what we should do and less nervous, less frightened in general”” (Peralta,


In researching this topic, I have found that the country is very divided racially. The

argument tends to shift from one about what constitutes terrorism to one about Caucasian people

getting away with terrorism solely because of their race. I think this topic would be great

evidence for a further research project/argument on the tendency of Americans to further the

racial divide in this country. Whether it be which race votes for which candidate or who gets shot

by whom the most, mass media and individual citizens are constantly reinforcing the differences

between Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, so on and so forth. The debate surrounding the word

“terrorism” is no different.

In conclusion, while no one can deny that events like domestic violence and mass

shootings cases fear and affect a great number of people, if they are not politically motivated,

they cannot be officially considered terrorism. And while no one can deny the deep seeded

racism that exists in this country, it would be unfair and inflammatory to assume that the media

and/or government officials make decisions about national security based on which church a

person attends or the color of their skin.



Green, John. Terrorism, war, and Bush 43: crash course US history #46. Crash Course, 30

January 2014.

Peralta, Eyder. When is an act of violence an act of terrorism?. National Public Radio, 17

July 2015

Richinick, Michele. Why aren’t mass shootings called terrorism?. MSNBC, 3 February 2014.

Wallace, Lane. What qualifies as terrorism?. The Atlantic, 23 February 2010.