A Question about San Bernardino: What Is and Isn’t Terrorism?

The killing in San Bernardino had not concluded before users on social media were already discussing whether it should be treated as a terrorist attack or as a shooting like the other shootings that have occurred in the United States in the last few years. On the one hand, Obama and some candidates immediately began discussing the necessity of better restrictions on access to firearms. On the other hand, the FBI indicates that terrorism cannot be discounted and should be investigated. When the names of the attackers were released as Syed Riswan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, many people began to make the inevitable associations between those events and others like the attacks in Paris. Nevertheless, although it is understandable given the state of collective stress in which we have fallen in the recent weeks, these associations cannot happen automatically. Distinguishing between categories of violence becomes absolutely indispensable. Why? To begin with, according to new data (IEP, 2015) people are 13 times more likely to die in various kinds of murder (like the shootings in the U.S.) than in terrorist attacks. Second, each of these types of violence are triggered by multiple factors that are sometimes related, although not always. Finally, the attacks require specific and differentiated measures.

Although there isn’t one definition of terrorism, we can do an exercise like the one carried out by Gadi Adleman. Using extensive literary research, Adelman identified, in the literature about the theme, the repetition of certain elements which follows: (a) “violence” or “force” appeared in 85.5 percent of the definitions, (b) “politics” appeared in 65 percent, (c) “fear” or “emphasis on terror” in 51 percent, (d) “threats,” “planned,” “systematic,” and “organized” in 32 percent, and (h) “methods of combat,” “strategy,” “tactics” in 30 percent. We should be able to say that terrorism is a very specific category of violence that employs itself against civilians, or noncombat actors, as an instrument or strategy to generate a state of shock, upheaval or terror in third parties (indirect victims) with the purpose of channeling a message or claim, while employing terror as the vehicle. Terrorism is not violence that causes terror, but violence is planned and perpetrated to cause terror with the end goal of impacting the behavior, attitude or opinions of the society or sections being affected, and therefore exerting pressure on certain would-be leaders or decision makers.

At the moment I am writing this, we are able to state that:

Unlike the overwhelming majority of shooting occurring in the U.S. each month, in this case there were at least two attackers, when normally there is only one. Consequently, this shooting presents features that distinguishes itself from the others.

By the type of equipment and vest used, the employment of explosives (and the storage of materials to arms these explosives), the seeming degree of premeditation and logistics goes beyond all common standard shootings.

There is a series of elements that are being investigated such as the travel, contacts and records of the attackers. The latest news that we have before concluding this text is that the attacker Tashfeen Malik seems to have professed her loyalty to the Islamic State in a post on Facebook.

The central key to being able to determine if the shooting in San Bernardino is an act of terrorism is not in the logistics, the number of people involved, the type of weaponry, the level of violence employed, the bloodthirsty act, or much less the last names of the attackers or their religion. It is in the motivations, on whether the perpetrators planned the event with a distinction between the direct victims and the true targets of the violence. That is to say, if the unfortunate victims of the attack are used only as an instrument for provoking terror in a third party, to gain focus, channel a political message through it, alter opinions and to exert pressure on the society or decisions makers about a political issue — whether religious or social — the act should be considered terrorism — even if they are treated as a sole actor (as in the attacker in Oslo) or a very small group of people (like, for example, the two brothers in Boston). Instead, if the shooting is due to a mental illness (which occurs in 11 percent of the cases of shooting in the US, according to a recent investigation, [Everytownresearch.org, 2015]), factor associated with an individual history of domestic violence (57 percent of the cases), revenge, a romantic relationship, or a topic related to a grudge with some institution or organization, the act should not be called terrorism. As of the moment I am writing this, we don’t have a posthumous video, a message or clear claim; in this case, the data seems to be pointing to the confirmation of a terrorist attack. However, it will be necessary to know more details besides understanding if the attackers planned and executed the attack by their own means — which is more probable — or if there was some outside coordination.

Despite the always-lamentable effect on the direct victims or the victims that suffer trauma by this, it should be treated in the same way as other types of violence, with the understanding of differences that should theoretically generate distinct responses on the part of the authorities. In the case of mass shootings that are becoming more common, U.S. society has a lot of unresolved work, which includes questions that range from restrictions to the access of guns to understanding the impact of the history of domestic violence that seems to produce the majority of potential attackers, among many other themes. However, in the case of terrorist attacks, according to the latest research, more measures are found in areas such as intelligence and police training, issues of foreign policy (like the decision to propel more peace processes and less military interventions in faraway conflicts), or even going as far as reducing the political, economic and/or social marginalization that is perceived in certain communities, such as the ones in European societies.

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