Thursday, March 22, 2018

From the Archives: Not all terrible acts are perpetrated by terrorists (1996)

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on July 31, 1996.

Not all terrible acts are perpetrated by terrorists
Richard E. Sincere Jr.

terrorism definitionWithout a doubt, the bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta early Saturday was the work of an evil person with malicious intentions. A businesswoman was killed, and 111 others injured. Law enforcement officials are justified in using all legal means at their disposal to find and prosecute the murderer.

It is, however, troubling that both law- enforcement agencies and the news media are treating this crime as as a terrorist event. Not all mass murders are acts of terrorism. Not all bombs are planted by terrorists.

Terrorism is fundamentally a political act, to advance a cause. Terrorists mean to create tyranny, either directly or indirectly, so that the political order that they prefer can take the place of the current one. Terrorists can be rebels seeking to overthrow a state; states seeking to overthrow the international order; or states seeking to maintain privilege for rulers and stifle dissent among the people. In every case, the motivation for terrorism is explicitly political.

Whoever planted the bomb in Atlanta was most likely a "lone wolf" who was seeking some sort of personal affirmation by seeing his morbid act reported on television and in the newspapers. He was no more a terrorist than Jeffrey Dahmer, whose murderous and cannibalistic behavior was disgusting and uncivilized, but had no political content.

The danger of elevating the tragedy at the Olympics to terrorist status is that it will give the U.S. government more excuses to erode our constitutional liberties. Already this year a new terrorism law took effect which limits the rights of foreign nationals to appeal deportation proceedings; which grants the FBI and other government agencies broad new authority to listen to our telephone calls; and which limits the right of habeas corpus for those accused of capital crimes. In short, it shrinks the Bill of Rights to a skeleton of what it should be. Another new law, "justified" by the Atlanta bombing, might rip the guts out of our freedoms of association, dissent, and privacy.

defining international terrorismReal terrorism is when the Irish Republican Army takes a sledgehammer to the kneecaps of a suspected informer in order to enforce its will in a Catholic neighborhood. Real terrorism is when the Libyan government plants a bomb in a Pan Am jetliner that explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland. Real terrorism is when the U.S. government uses tanks to knock down the homestead of religious dissenters in Waco, resulting in the deaths of dozens. Real terrorism is when Palestinian gunmen kidnap and murder Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

It ill-serves us to redefine simple crimes as terrorism when the result is expanded government power and shrunken human liberty. Such redefinition also, in a perverse sense, glorifies the criminal when our goal should be shame and punishment.

Let's not over-react to the Atlanta bombing. If we do, far more than 112 people will be harmed.

Sincere is the author of "The Politics of Sentiment" and other works.

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