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I'm a Terrorist, You're a Terrorist

The New York Daily News is no stranger to provocative headlines. Just within this month, the newspaper has stirred multiple controversies; perhaps the most controversial was that of December 4, which labeled mass shooters Syed Farooq, Robert Dear, Dylann Roof, Adam Lanza, and James Holmesalong with the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierreas terrorists.

For the media, determining whether a mass shooting is an act of terror is more of a judgment call than an exact science. National Public Radio's Mark Memmott explains his organization's process:

In each case, there are talks about the right ways to describe what has happened. That may change in the first few hours or days as more information comes in. "Murder" or "terror" or "hate crime"—all those words start percolating in the back of your mind, but it's always best to stick to the facts and stick to the action words as information is still coming in before trying to apply labels.

The New York Daily News is clearly less reticent to apply incendiary labels—but is Friday's headline beyond the pale?

LaPierre is so single-minded that he sometimes alienates his allies, as in his tone-deaf response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when he advocated for putting armed guards in public schools. Even the conservative New York Post labeled him a "gun nut" after that one.

But does that make him a terrorist?

United States law defines domestic terrorism as activities with three characteristics:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear 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
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

By that definition, the shootings by Farooq (San Bernardino development facility), Dear (Planned Parenthood), and Roof (Charleston AME church) appear to be terrorism. The shootings by Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary) and James Holmes (Colorado theater) do not. The first three committed acts that, within a larger context, could cause others to fear for their future. The latter two appear to be mentally disturbed individuals that didn't grasp the consequences of their actions. They weren't intending to intimidate anyone.

And LaPierre? He does operate primarily within the United States, so he meets on of the three criteria.

But does gun advocacy involve "acts dangerous to human life" that "violate federal or state law"? While a case could possibly be made that a proliferation of guns would involve dangerous acts, LaPierre and the NRA have never advocated using guns in violation of the law--and they have consistently claimed they want gun owners to use them in a safe way. On balance, it's hard to imagine LaPierre's goal is to endanger human life.

And then there's the middle section of the terrorism definition. Is LaPierre's firearms advocacy intended to intimidate or coerce either civilians or government policy? Does he intend to affect the government's conduct by "mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping"? Even by the most uncharitable possible interpretation of his words, that's a stretch.

So from a legal point of view, Wayne LaPierre cannot be considered a terrorist.

But from a looser, media-defined perspective, does the Daily News have a valid point about the role LaPierre and the NRA play in increasing gun violence? Again, I think the answer is no. First, because not alll gun deaths are acts of terrorism. (The vast majority, in fact, are self-inflicted.) Second, because acts of violence committed in the service of making a political statement are different from similar actions committed by mentally disturbed individuals.

The Planned Parenthood shooting is merely the latest in a long string of violence directed against abortion clinics and the physicians who work in them. The Charleston shooting is just one incident in a decades-long history of violence against black churches.

By contrast, the random shooting at the premier of a Batman movie at a Colorado theater is not part of a coordinated effort to pressure studios to stop making superhero films, or to frighten the public against eating extra-buttery popcorn.

By lumping genuine acts of terror with random acts by disturbed individuals—and then tossing in someone whose politics they don't like—the New York Daily News is cheapening the concept of terrorism. If a person can be labeled a terrorist simply for advocating political change, then we might all be terrorists at times. And if the word can be applied to any of us, then we're left without a word to describe the real terrorists—the ones who are intentionally trying to destabilize our world and to make us fear for our lives.

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