January 17, 2022

Terrorism? Really?

President Biden called the hostage incident in a Texas synagogue “an act of terror.” The FBI, which is now investigating the 11-hour standoff that resulted in no casualties other than the hostage-taker, is calling the event “terrorism-related.”

Given that the perpetrator, Malik Faisal Akram, apparently demanded the release of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, the “terrorism-related” description appears justified. But did Akram really commit “an act of terror,” as the president asserted? Was he himself a terrorist?

Not everyone agrees on just what terrorism is. Merriam-Webster offers a straightforward definition:

the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

Merriam-Webster further provides multiple definitions of terror, including:

a state of intense or overwhelming fear
violence or the threat of violence used as a weapon of intimidation or coercion, especially violent or destructive acts (such as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands

The first definition captures the meaning of terror as a human emotion. For example, someone trapped in a burning building and facing a horrible death is surely experiencing terror. The second definition seems too broad, though the description following especially captures what most of us think of as terror or terrorism.

Malik Faisal Akram did indeed employ “violence or the threat of violence used as a weapon of intimidation or coercion.” But does not an armed bank robber do the same? Yet it would be viewed as odd to call the run-of-the-mill bank robber a terrorist.

Akram did not seek to intimidate the government or American citizens generally. As most of us understand terrorism, it necessarily involves inspiring fear (i.e., terror) in a wide audience. For example, flying airplanes into the World Trade Towers was a crime, but it was certainly also an act of terrorism. It scared the shit out of the entire country, which, no doubt, was the desired effect. Akram’s deeds not so much. He was a kidnapper and extortionist, and his crimes may have arisen in part from antisemitic animus. But I do not think him a terrorist.

President Biden, like many of us, was appalled by Akram’s actions. Rather than thinking deeply about the matter before speaking, he used the word “terror” because of the reaction that word elicits. He acted as many dictators do, labeling any violent act they dislike or fear as “terrorism.”

After 9/11, the words “terror” and “terrorism” themselves have become terrifying. They have become weapons in the hands of self-serving politicians because they call forth such visceral reactions and discourage further rational thought.

I do not believe that President Biden had ulterior motives in saying what he did. He is, after all, known for his less-than-precise declarations. This is not to excuse him, of course, and one could wish that, as President of the United States, he would edit his pronouncements more carefully. I think the president simply meant that Malik Faisal Akram did a really bad thing, something that was more reprehensible for having been committed inside a synagogue during a worship service. What he did was terrible, but it was not an act of terror.

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