The often ambiguous meaning of ‘terrorist’


Terrorism is extremely annoying. Brave stance, I know.

It’s the term itself that annoys me. “Terrorism” has never really been consistently applied to acts of violence. Rather, its use is selective, often revealing the biases of the user. The terrorist label is inconsistently used in American society, especially when it’s our government slapping it on people. “Terrorist,” as applied in American society, is largely a meaningless propagandistic word, and law enforcement seems to universally bend over backwards to apply the term to as many black and brown faces and as few white ones as possible.

We saw much of American society’s frustration with this blatant double standard during the manhunt for the Austin bomber earlier this month. For over two weeks, explosive devices placed on peoples’ doorsteps and hidden on footpaths terrorized the city of Austin. At first, it appeared the bombings were racially motivated, but eventual white victims cast doubt on this theory.

With this unclear picture in place, people all over the country called for the Austin bomber, whoever he ended up being, to be called a terrorist by politicians and law enforcement. This public demand was based on the assumption that criminal psychologists were correct in predicting the at-large bomber would be a young white man.

The debate raged. White conservatives with poor understandings of forensic psychology got offended over the assumption that the bomber would be white. Of course they did. Political science nerds reminded everyone of the generally accepted definition of the word: violence committed against non-military targets for political ends. Many asked how someone could be labeled a terrorist when no manifesto, demands or even political affiliation had been discovered.

I’m partial to de-politicizing the label of terrorism, at least as far as conservatives and liberals bickering over it in this partisan manner. If there’s a political demand attached to the violence, it’s terrorism. If there isn’t, then it’s serial or mass murder.

And then it turns out the suspect, 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, basically studied with white ISIS.

Conditt came from a strictly religious conservative family and belonged to a Christian outdoor activity group called Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT). RIOT instructs home-schooled children in bible study, weapons training and survivalism. Conditt’s younger sister, who also took part in RIOT, has been quoted as saying that attendees were very interested in weapons, chemistry and combat reenactments, but that bomb-making was not an official activity. Extremely normal- sounding youth group.

Does that mean Conditt’s a terrorist? It’s certainly possible, but law enforcement said he gave no motives in the confession video they recovered. When it comes to the kind of people who murder others with bombs, taking part in the Apocalypse Preparedness Jesus Camp is usually an extremely good indicator of political motives for violence. On the other hand, according to Conditt’s confession, he suspected himself to be a psychopath, and all indications seem to point to randomly selected victims, much as a serial killer might operate.

Even knowing all the people he hurt and a bit about him, I can’t say for sure if Conditt is a terrorist. He placed bombs and terrorized people, but we don’t know why. Maybe he did it to fulfill some bizarre apocalyptic vision indoctrinated in him since youth, or maybe he thinks his dog told him to. It seems pedantic, but motivations absolutely matter here if we are concerned with helping the dangerously mentally ill and addressing the political concerns that may lead to this type of violence.

But I do know the reason Conditt was not called a terrorist by the law enforcement pursuing him: Based on his methods, he’d turn out to be white. I guarantee you that if investigators had picked up a single whiff of Islam or a foreign origin, we’d have been having a completely different conversation based on that fact alone. It may be correct in the end to say that Conditt was a serial killer rather than a terrorist, but we all know that a Muslim or person of color wouldn’t have received either the benefit of the doubt or a fraction of the nuanced consideration given to the whiteness of a calculating murderer.

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