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Monday, July 31, 2006

Who is a terrorist?

I appreciate everyone's patience.  I haven't been responding to comments over the past couple of days because I have been busy corresponding with the many generous people who sent in donations to check if they want to earmark the donation for something specific and to get permission to list them on the 'Trepp Honor Roll'.

That said, there have been some very interesting comments and emails and I'd like to address a couple of them here:

First of all, an email from a reader calling himself Bruin74 and a comment from the lovely and talented Seattle blogger Lachlan both raised the same issue of how to classify the guy who shot up the Jewish Federation in the Emerald City on Friday.

The main contention seemed to be that because this guy seems at first scratch to be mentally unstable with a troubled family history... perhaps it was unfair to label him a terrorist, and his rampage an act of terrorism.

Before I weigh in I'd like to bring up a few historical examples that I feel relate directly to the topic under discussion:

In the Southern United States in the years before and during the struggle for Civil Rights, lynchings and other deadly attacks against African Americans, black-owned businesses and places of worship with predominantly black membership, were endemic.  Undoubtedly many of these attacks (perhaps even most) were carried out on behalf of organized hate groups such as the KKK.  But there were certainly many free-lance lynchings and deliberate attacks on people and property that were carried out by weak minded individuals who acted based on their sympathies for ideas advanced by groups like the KKK... and out of their own shaky handle on the difference between right and wrong. 

Back before Jerusalem was reunited in the Six Day War of 1967, it spent 19 years as a divided city with a high wall running between Jordanian East Jerusalem and Israeli West Jerusalem.  Every few days there would be shooting from the Jordanian side of the wall towards Israelis walking in West Jerusalem.  Each time this happened the Israelis would file a formal complaint with the international authorities and the Jordanians would reply that the culprit had been a mentally unstable soldier who was acting on his own and would invariably regret the loss of life or damage to property caused by the shooter.  In a bit of typical black humor, the Israelis took to calling the frequent shooters 'HaMeshugah HaToran' (roughly, the person whose turn it was to be crazy).

There have been several well documented attacks on foreign tourists in Egypt by heavily armed individuals.  Each and every time a bus-load of tourists has been targeted, the Egyptian government has issued a standard statement (I think they have a pre-printed form at the press office) deploring the attack and assuring the world that the perp was mentally unstable and not connected to any organized terrorist organization.

In July of 2002, an Egyptian named Hesham Mohamed Hadayet walked into Los Angeles International Airport, made his way past several other airline's ticket counter and approached the El Al counter before opening fire with a handgun.  He killed two people and wounded another four.  Within minutes the FBI and local police were on the news announcing the preliminary details of the shooting and assuring the public that this did not appear to be an act of terrorism, but rather a random act of violence by an unstable individual.  Even as documented evidence continued to mount that his attack was premeditated and that he had harbored violent feelings towards Jews/Israelis for some time, the US government didn't budge from its assertion that this was the act of a lone madman who may or may not have been aware of the ethnicity/nationality of his victims.  It wasn't until much later that the authorities quietly admitted that the shooting was an act of hate/terror.

What do all these examples have in common?

They all assume the following:

  • That a lack of clear membership/affiliation with an organized group means a lone/unaffiliated violent actor lacks the same motivation as people associated with an established group.
  • Mental instability of an individual shields him from the assumption that his actions could have been inspired, or even ordered, by a group or organization.
  • That weapons and other terror resources magically appear in the hands of individual actors.
  • That there is no duplicity involved in a terror/hate group's openly advocating, and even carrying out, a specific type of violence against Jews/Israelis while simultaneously denouncing identical acts performed by individuals who are not card-carrying members of their organization or (ostensibly) directly under their orders.

Let's think for a moment about who the majority of terrorists are... and who they are not:

  • You will not see family members or close associates of any senior members of a terrorist organization strapping on a suicide belt. 
  • They tend to be people from the fringes of the society from which the terrorist organizations pull their membership. 
  • They are sometimes mentally ill. 
  • They are frequently adolescents or post-adolescents who are ripe for emotional manipulation.
  • They are frequently people who are open to coercion because of insurmountable debts, perceived breaches in family or individual honor, etc.
  • Contrary to popular belief, terrorist are not by definition poor.  Middle class disaffection can be equally responsible for an individual's decision to carry out violent acts.

This latest attack in Seattle is a perfect test case.  While no group or terror organization has stepped up to claim the actions of this individual shooter, the results bear the hallmarks of an actor who was either ordered to carry out a terror attack... or who decided on his own to emulate previous actions carried out by terrorist organizations.

That he is mentally unstable (perhaps even 'bipolar', to use a word I admit to only partially understanding) is sort of besides the point.  Even assuming for the moment that he is a lone actor (something of which I am not yet convinced), he was able to...

... formulate complex political opinions about who he wanted to harm.

... navigate the process of acquiring two semi-automatic handguns and ammunition.

... identify a Jewish/Israeli target in a city that, when compared with places like New York, Chicago and LA, has a dearth of 'quality', identifiably Jewish targets.

... come up with a simple and effective plan for breaching the security entrance of the Seattle Jewish Federation building (he took a 13 year old girl hostage and threatened to shoot her if the door wasn't opened immediately).

... appreciate that what he was doing was wrong and come up with an effective exit strategy based on the fact that immediately after shooting his first victim he forced her to dial the police so he could open negotiations for his safe passage out of the building.

Therefore I ask you the following three questions, dear readers: 

Is membership in an organization required for an act to qualify as terrorism? 

Does the actor need to be of sound mind and free of ulterior motivation to be labeled a terrorist?

Does it make a difference to the victims if they were targeted because of the same criteria used by terrorist organizations if the person who kills or wounds them is acting as a free agent?


Posted by David Bogner on July 31, 2006 | Permalink


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He was a terrorist. I would say that by definition, anyone who straps on a suicide belt and goes to kill other people is mentally unstable --whether acting alone or as part of an organized group. To be a terrorist is, by definition, to be off your rocker. This guy happens to be a solo nutburger terrorist.

Posted by: Yael | Jul 31, 2006 12:42:49 PM

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, chances are good that it's a duck.

Or a terrorist, in this case.

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 31, 2006 1:10:48 PM

He's a terrorist, there is no doubt in my mind. There are many bloggers in America who decrying how this evil act is not being protrayed as terrorism.

With the interent, the truth comes out faster.

Posted by: seawitch | Jul 31, 2006 2:52:34 PM

He's a terrorist. To my mind, the only question that remains is whether he is competent to stand trial, and that is for the judge to decide.

Side note: I can't help remembering the co-worker who told me back in 1988 that antisemitism was dead. We've been out of touch for years, but I wonder what he thinks now.

Posted by: Rahel | Jul 31, 2006 3:09:36 PM

I understand your point and I think it's a valid one -- but I think there's a real danger of the word "terrorist" getting watered down if every hate crime gets grandfathered in, even if it 'fits the mold.'

This was a hate crime. But he could very well have acted alone, and crazy people are EXTREMELY capable of formulating plans, even with well-thought-out exit strategies. Many people with mental illnesses are not filled with hatred of others, they're suicidal - and many suicidal people succeed. But the high suicide failure rate is well documented as well... and many mentally ill people who do kill themselves, do so with elaborate, well-laid-out plans. They acquire guns, they arrange schedules away from work to keep people from suspecting. They come up with the plans that they do because they know how high the price is if they fail . They obsess and obsess and obsess. That's what separates out mentally unstable people from the rest of us.

I believe words matter (and I believe you do too, which is why you posted this in the first place). And though I think your point is that we need others to be aware of how many acts of terrorism there are against us, I fear the opposite is true. There are many acts of terrorism against us, and those need to be shouted out and not dropped. If there is a link from the Egyptian murderer to a solid terror organization then it shouldn't be dropped. But until a link is proven from the Sydney bastard to someone funding him, calling him a terrorist diminishes the power of the word "terrorist," and it also diminishes his actions.

Terrorists go out to cause disruptions and stir up fears in the human community - they can strike at any time. This man wanted to kill Jews. Right now, in America, people are still worried about terrorism. They see that it can affect them personally. The best way, even just from a public relations standpoint, to keep people here understanding that fact, is to keep their eyes on the ball that there are terrorist organizations who hate peaceful civilians... and there are sick people who hate Jews - and let them connect the dots (trust me - they do). The second that people here start to think that terrorists who are striking in America only target Jews, the less it will help us here.

This man's goal may have been to cause terror... and he may be applauded within the Arab world for having done so... so I understand the temptation to brand the action as such. I just think choosing when to apply the word will keep it powerful. And it needs to stay powerful. So many people are now called "nazis," and so many tragedies are now called "holocausts" -- and you see how ridiculously the word "genocide" is thrown around... right now, when the U.S. is actively fighting terrorism , we can't afford to have taxpayers and voters suddenly decide it's not really their problem.

Posted by: Stepima | Jul 31, 2006 6:07:04 PM

I want to ask the question why the world wants to stuff its head where the sun doesn't shine and admit we are in a real ... ongoing ... protracted-with-no-end-imaginable, War Against Islamic Fundamentalists?

Our Big Brothers want to obfuscate the terrorist situation because if the public wakes up they might actually have to DO something in place of the half measures and head fakes we presently occupy ourselves with.

Then we would have to draft a couple million new soldiers, go into decades long debt and attack Iran and North Korea.

(Of course we would need a boots on the ground invasion. Nuking them would be uncivilized. Better a hundred thousand or so of our boys die in combat.)

Can't have that. Better to fiddle around with our thumbs planted untill Iran nukes Israel. I suppose 'they' think Israel will then wipe Iran off the map just prior to being vaporized by the incomming missles. Whalla! A 'better' world.

As to this particular terrorist being nuts .... of course he's nuts. Anyone who takes a 7th century Arab warlord's idea of morality and political philosophy as the word of God HAS to be crazy.

Posted by: Scott | Jul 31, 2006 6:27:52 PM

Anyone who commits acts of "terror" to achieve political or ideological gains is a terrorist. He mentioned he was upset with Israel. He killed someone. He's a terrorist.

And by definition, being a terrorist REQUIRES one to be mentally unstable. Again, he's a terrorist.

Great post,


Posted by: Montey Pieathon | Jul 31, 2006 6:33:27 PM

I think people will go back and forth on this forever.

Posted by: Alice | Jul 31, 2006 6:45:53 PM

"You will not see family members or close associates of any senior members of a terrorist organization strapping on a suicide belt"

So you wrote, however, Nasrallah did "lose" a son in the Hizbullah war against Israel a few years back. Does this qualify him as a "bereaved father"? I think not.

Posted by: asher | Jul 31, 2006 8:19:59 PM

I have one word for you. Qana. The deaths of scores of innocent Lebanese children, women and men in a planned and targeted bombing on a house of refuge, despite official Israeli protestations to the contrary, is an act of terrorism. Pure, unadulterated, state sanctioned terrorism. Or if you prefer, let's call it a war crime, and prosecute those responsible. But that won't happen, of course. Israel has so nicely framed the language we are sanctioned to speak, as evidenced in this column, that any time any attack comes against anything Jewish (not even Israeli) anywhere in the world, we are supposed to call it terrorism now. Congratulations. And ridiculous. To use your words, there are sick people who hate, and Jews and Israelis seem to fit in that category too. But then, they hate Arabs, so it's perfectly ok and legitimate. If an Arab or anyone else criticizes Jews/Israelis for their comportment, and yes, even hates them after their children have been blown up, they are labeled anti-semitic, thanks to more skillful language framing. How convenient and how very useful when faced with undeniable facts detrimental to the carefully sanitized and scripted image the Israeli's project to the world. And yet the world, or at least as evidenced by the UN, is not fooled.

Posted by: chomsky reader | Jul 31, 2006 9:07:59 PM

I agree with Rahel, and as I stated in my comment on Trepp's previous post, there are numerous indications that the guy isn't all that sane. If that is the case, can he even form the intent to be the modern definition of a terrorist*- no matter his statements?

*To me, the modern definition held by many is an individual who might act alone but is definitely tied to an organization (Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, etc etc)

Posted by: Lachlan | Jul 31, 2006 9:20:14 PM

This is part of the wider problem of the relation between mental illness and crime, especially violent crime, and the relation between mental illness and antisocial or "inappropriate" behavior.

We seem to have two distinct categories, sane people who know what they are doing and are responsible, and can be punished; and mad people who cannot help themselves and need medical treatment rather than punishment. Yet most studies show that prisons are full of people with mental health problems.

I think the reality is that there is someting wrong with these categories, and with out concept of moral responsibility. It goes quite deep and has to do also with the question of "free will" versus "predestination".

I don't have any answer, I am just saying that apparently simple questions like "Is he mad or is he a terrorist?" are not so easy to answer.

Posted by: Don Cox | Jul 31, 2006 10:38:47 PM

I've been struggling with the same question. And in the process, I turned to some legal research and specific definitions of "hate crime" and "domestic terrorism", to see how that attack fits in each. The difference is subtle, and lies mostly in intent - hate crimes target specific groups, whereas terrorist attacks have political goals. I hope you don't mind if I link to your post when I finish writing.

Posted by: Irina | Jul 31, 2006 10:51:10 PM

answers to the questions:

no, no, and uh...no.

yeah hes a terrorist alright.

chomsky dude..."Israel has so nicely framed the language we are sanctioned to speak, as evidenced in this column, that any time any attack comes against anything Jewish (not even Israeli) anywhere in the world, we are supposed to call it terrorism now."

terrorism - The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.

whenever someone attacks jews, its ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS for ideological and political reasons. the seattle TERRORIST clearly said, "I'm a Muslim American; I'm angry at Israel." thus making it a terror attack.

and it just so happens that most terror attacks thses days happen cuz everyone hates jews and wants to do something about it.

nice try, though. maybe you should try reading dershowitz...

Posted by: Tonny | Jul 31, 2006 11:12:06 PM

I also tend to agree with Rahel on this one. On all points. The choice here isn't between a terrorist and a sick individual who needs help. I think Irina's distinction between hate crimes and domestic terrorism is an important one. The latter is no less reprehensible than the former, but it carries different implications.

If this attack was carried out with the intent to convince the Jewish community in Seattle or in the US to abandon its support for Israel, then I'd call it a terrorist attack, whether the shooter was "sane" or not. If the intent was to murder Jews because the shooter simply wants Jews dead, then I'd call it a hate crime, just as I would a similar attack on a black church or a gay bar.

I've been in this ring before. I felt the same way about Eden Tzuberi/Natan Zada's shooting rampage in Shfaram last summer.

(ducking now)

Posted by: Lynn B. | Aug 1, 2006 12:25:08 AM

"Hate Crime"

An illegitimate concept. Orwell would have recognized so called hate crime and he told us all the concept was comming. He called it Thought Crime.

Even to begin using language such as 'hate crime' is to already be far down the road Orwell saw. A sickening twisted hell-world of dehumanized inmates manipulated by an elete few skilled in the black arts of psychology.

We are using 'Newspeak' already and don't even realize it. Its a creeping mental cancer with innumerable tentacles choking the human spirit. Only those who cling tightly to legitimate Orthodox faith .... excluding with extreme prejudice all false gods and false doctrine are safe from it. In other words almost no one.

Posted by: Scott | Aug 1, 2006 2:05:38 AM

How many terrorists does it take to kill someone? Seriously.

Posted by: Z | Aug 1, 2006 3:04:33 AM

Chomskey reader- "carefully sanitized and scripted image the Israeli's project to the world"

Huh? When is this script written? Do they all get together on one giant conference call? Or does everyone get a super secret cell phone with their Israeli passport?

Posted by: Alice | Aug 1, 2006 4:21:02 AM

Yael... Wow, feisty today, aren't we?! :-) I'm smiling both because I agree with you and because you have this gentle 'nice grrrl' persona over at your place. Nice to see you yell once in a while.

Elisson... And here I am without any duck sauce. :-)

Seawitch... One thing worth noting is that while blogs spread 'information' faster, there is still not firm consensus as to what constitutes 'the truth'. In this case I doubt many people's views were dramatically changed as to how to classify this attack (or the person who carried it out).

Rahel... My guess is that anyone who had cause to say anti-semitism is dead anytime within the past 20 years probably doesnt realize he's a carrier.

Stepima... I have to disagree with you about the issue of watering down the word terrorist. If we were to use it for every jerk who paints a swastika on a synagogue I would go along with you. But we are talking about the taking of Jewish life right in the heart of a major US city for the simple reason that the perp hated Jews and Israel. That isn't something to be pooh-poohed and we become desensitized to such attacks at our peril. Calling the intentional targeting of Jews is terrorism and to call it something else is to try to make it more palatable.

Scott... I've asked a few times now and really have to insist. Either you start to edit yourself a tiny bit or I'm going to have to. You are putting out perfectly valid views couched in terms that are nearly impossible for people to accept. The situation may be apocalyptic, but using a biblical lexicon and unhelpful terminology to make your point makes it difficult for your important ideas to carry across.

Montey Pieathon... I slept through most of my psych 101 class in university so I won't profess any real knowledge of what is considered a mental defect. But I do know that many terrorists are perfectly rational within the framework that they chose. Take the pilots in the 911 attack... they had to infiltrate a foreign society/culture and carry out a complex attack with military precision. While I consider them evil I wouldn't say they were mentally defective.

Alice... On the contrary, I think most people will stay exactly where they are on this one. :-)

Asher... I didn't write anything about Nasrallah's son, but if he was killed you can be sure it wasn't in a suicide attack.

Chomsky Reader... GAZE

Lachlan... I think where you and I part ways is the need to be a member of a larger group. That this guy immediately professed his motives is proof enough for me that he was more than able to form intent.

Don Cox... You are probably right. Most of us would admit (if asked) that any violent criminal behavior probably indicates a mental defect of some sort on the part of the perp. But should that excuse them from responsibility?

Irian... He clearly had political goals since his first statement made clear that his intent was for his actions to somehow affect the current plans of the Israelis. I will look forward to reading what you have to say on the subject since as a student of the law your legal background will do away with a lot of the idle speculation in which I perpetually indulge. :-)

Tonny... Please don't feed the trolls.

Lynn B. ... No need to duck and run. Unfortunately we Jews/Israelis have produced terrorists of our own. I'm willing to call a spade a spade.

Scott... I am starting to despair of ever reforming you. Please come back to us.

Z ... Is that a trick question? :-)

Alice... So not worth it. Just GAZE at the silly bigot and go on your way. Nothing to see here. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 1, 2006 9:44:10 AM

Back here in the states people are afraid to call a spade a spade.

They didn't want to call the incident at LAX a terror incident and they don't want to call Seattle terror either.

The man walked in and announced what he was upset about and why he was doing what he was doing.

He didn't walk around muttering to himself. He may truly be mentally ill but wouldn't many people say the same thing about OBL, Manson, Nasrallah or anyone else who thinks that terror is a legitimate form of protest.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 1, 2006 10:21:38 AM

In response to Trepp - good point. I agree that he is evil. But I also see someone who holds human life to such a low regard as having a mental defect. The natural "healthy" human mind sees other humans as being very valuable - our social existence is dependent on the fact.

I found this paper on serial killers:


It suggests a model of serial murder that includes sociological, psychiatric, psychological/developmental and biological elements.

Further, from the paper:

"Murderers have higher scores on both psychoticism and neuroticism inventories than other subjects" (Singh, 1979).

I would argue that the ability to murder (or commit acts of terror) should be seen as a social defect, stemming from a mental psychosis. The very act of killing requires one to view a victim as less than human. You’re right, however, that the 9/11 pilots were acting quite rationally – but one may be psychotic and still be quite logical and determined in one’s actions.

Now, I’m sure the antiwar mongrels will get all in arms about this, too. Compared to murdering innocent civilians through terror, killing other military combatants on the battlefield is quite another story. And no, I don’t think the brave men and women fighting for our freedoms are mentally defective. War is, and has been, a necessary mainstay of social human history. Not to say that all wars are “just”, but our social survival depends on the eradication of evil.

Keep up the great posts,


Singh, A. (1979). A study of the personality and adjustment of murderers. Indian Journal of Clinical Psychology, 6 (2), pp.201-204.

Posted by: Montey Pieathon | Aug 1, 2006 6:49:29 PM

You should do some research regarding the civil rights movement, the U.S. and the south. The ENTIRE country was (and in many cases 'is') guilty of human rights violations, this was not just a Southern problem.
DO your homework.!

Posted by: Susan | Aug 2, 2006 7:42:39 AM

The Seattle incident was for sure a hate crime. The question of whether it constitutes terrorism is an interesting one. Terrorism requires the actor to threaten civilians in order to achieve a political goal. It takes more than just anger at a political policy. This is the reason why terrorists are often thought of as belonging to larger groups; an angry person acts alone; a person interested in forcing change joins a group. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made under the terrorism laws that the Seattle incident constituted a terrorist act.

I used to share Scott's view on hate crime legislation. But the fact of the matter is that intent, i.e. thought, is usually an element of the crime anyway. If it can be proven that one acted out of an intent to target a specific ethnic, racial, religious, or national group, I see no reason why his punishment should not be enhanced.

Posted by: Michael Brenner | Aug 2, 2006 5:45:19 PM

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