When terror isn’t terrorism

(CNN)Terrorism isn’t just an act of violence — it’s a political statement, the politically motivated killing of innocents. In the early years after the 9/11 attacks, declaring al Qaeda attacks incidents of terror seemed straightforward: Al Qaeda leadership selected targets and trained or inspired followers who took direction or guidance. And responsibility was clear since they generally claimed the attacks they conducted and rarely claimed attacks they did not.


Some of these perpetrators appear to claim ISIS was their inspiration because the true inspiration is less ideological. Some were emotionally unhinged. They may have had some sort of interest in ISIS; they also clearly had other psychological demons that led them to kill.
Second, for those inspired or directed by ISIS — and for its core leadership — there is an honor in terrorism, the use of these attacks to counter vastly superior adversaries in Europe, the Middle East, North America and elsewhere. There is, however, no excuse for random murder among true terrorists. By granting ISIS a claim over these attackers, we elevate murder to what they want: a sign that their message of a new caliphate age, driven by ISIS, is gaining traction.
This immediate characterization of this new phase of attackers as “terrorists,” despite their clearly muddled motivations, vaults a mass murderer who cannot validate killing into the realm of a politically motivated jihadist who is embraced by a fringe group that sees his act as justified.

Terrorist label doesn’t fit

When we don’t know the motivations of these new killers who simply cover their actions with an ISIS veneer, why do we give them the validation they seek? At the very least, we are looking at a new category of terror for which we have no label.
When an apparently emotionally disturbed attacker murders in Nice, Orlando, Germany, or any of the other locations that have become so common today, commentators shift immediately to the bias of placing these attacks in an understandable narrative, to make sense of acts of violence.
“Another act of terrorism,” they might say, an evolution in what we’ve witnessed for two decades. Using the al-Qaeda past as a frame to understand the present, we are falling prey to a human bias to create clean narratives that follow a clearly understandable storyline answering the questions of why, and puts individual incidents in a broader context.
In reality, it is not an evolution, it’s a different phenomenon. Disturbed individuals who couldn’t find a group to validate their actions in the past today have that validation, and it’s ISIS. Regardless of whether they either believe or understand the ISIS message, they will claim ISIS inspiration because the alternative — mass murder without a clear rationale — is indefensible. Yet would these attacks have occurred without ISIS? Maybe so.
In cases of mass murder, Americans have evolved to understand the first question about the perpetrator isn’t what he did, or who he killed. It’s what his mental state was, whether he had the mental capacity to be tried in a US court as a murderer. As time goes on, we might simply apply the same standard to murderers who claim to be terrorists. Before we look at what they did, or who they killed, start with a simpler question: Were they actually motivated by some warped political ideology, or were they looking for validation from ISIS as cover for whatever psychological problem or emotional disturbance they suffered from?
It’s still not clear what the Orlando killer was thinking when he entered that club. We call him a terrorist even as we accept the diametrically opposed proposition that we don’t exactly know why he did what he did. A mass murderer isn’t necessarily a terrorist. And a self-proclaimed ISIS adherent attacking in the streets of America or Europe isn’t necessarily terrorism.

Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/08/opinions/when-terror-isnt-terrorism-opinion-mudd/index.html

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