TerrorismThe moral questions in the debate on what constitutes terrorism

By Jessica Wolfendale

Published 12 December 2017

Even though domestic killings and nonterrorist mass shootings kill more Americans than terrorism and undermine our security, these acts typically don’t lead to calls for radical preventive measures. But if two acts of violence kill or injure similar numbers of people, have similar effects on victims and communities, and spread fear and terror, we, as a society, should see them as equally abhorrent, regardless of whether they are ideologically motivated. And we should see the goal of preventing such acts as equally urgent. Most of us, however, don’t. And that’s unfair. It’s unfair to the victims of mass killers and domestic violence, whose safety and security are not regarded as warranting the same outrage and demand for radical preventive measures that terrorist killings call for.

Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old man, has been accused of detonating a pipe bomb strapped to his body in a New York subway, injuring four people on the morning of 11 December. The Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating the attack and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said it was “an attempted terrorist attack.”

Just over a month ago, when Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people in New York on 31 October by driving a truck through a bicycle path, it was called a terrorist act within a few hours.

In contrast, Devin Kelley, who killed 26 people in a church in Texas, was not called a terrorist. Like many mass shooters, he had a history of domestic violence. His motivation was supposedly rage at his ex-wife.

This distinction between terrorist and nonterrorist mass killers is not new. The Pulse Nightclub shooter in Orlando and the San Bernardino shooters were quickly labeled terrorists, but not the Sandy Hook shooter or the Las Vegas shooter. Dylann Roof, who killed nine African-American churchgoers in 2015, was labeled a terrorist by some commentators but not others.

Going by the accepted definitions of terrorism, some mass killers are terrorists but others are not. But, from my perspective as an ethicist and scholar of terrorism this raises some ethical questions: Is this distinction applied fairly? And are there moral differences between terrorist and nonterrorist violence?

The significance of the label “terrorist”
Calling an act “terrorist” has huge implications: Terrorism is often depicted as a serious threat justifying radical counterterrorism measures, including mass surveillance, immigration bans and even torture.

In addition, the label “terrorist” often expresses a particularly strong form of moral condemnation. Philosopher Michael Walzer, for example, calls terrorism “indefensible” because it targets innocent people and creates fear in everyday life. While we condemn all murders, terrorist murders are often regarded as particularly morally reprehensible.

So in thinking about whether Ullah, Saipov and other mass killers are terrorists, two questions arise: Do their actions meet an accepted definition of terrorism? And is there something about their actions that justifies strong moral condemnation and radical preventive measures?