Terrorism has traditionally been distinguished from other mass killings by its political overtones.
With authorities still looking for explosives, the danger was not even over when an FBI official posed the question already on many minds.
“Is this a terrorist incident?” he asked at a news conference Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif. “We do not know.”
Moments later, the local police chief stepped to the microphone and said there was nothing, at that point, indicating terrorism “in the traditional sense.” But, he added: “Obviously, at a minimum, we have a domestic terrorist-type situation that occurred here.”
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In an era of jarring violence at home and abroad, Americans are struggling to understand the forces driving attacks and the nature of what they are seeing. Assailants mow down innocent men, women and children in Paris and also in Newtown, Conn.; Charleston, S.C.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and now, San Bernardino. But when is it terrorism?
Is it terrorism when a gunman sprays bullets in an elementary school or an African-American church or a Planned Parenthood clinic? What about at an office holiday party? Does an attack on a military-recruitment center automatically qualify? What if a suspect is an American Muslim? Does he or she have ties to designated terrorist groups or are assumptions being made based on religion, even without evidence?
The authorities investigating the San Bernardino shootings were working Thursday to piece together an explanation of what happened, seeking clues that may help them better understand the episode in which at least 14 people were killed, in addition to the two shooters. But with so many mass shootings in the United States lately, the larger question remains.
Liberals and Muslim groups complain that any attack committed by Muslims seems to be automatically labeled a terrorist incident, while those committed by others are not. “Muslim Killers,” read the cover headline of Thursday’s New York Post. Conservatives complain that the Obama administration is too reluctant for political reasons to confront the reality of radical Islam or even to use the word terrorism to describe episodes such as the 2009 shootings by a Muslim Army officer at Fort Hood, Texas.
Terrorism has traditionally been distinguished from other mass killings by its political overtones. Federal law defines terrorism as dangerous acts intended to intimidate a civilian population, influence government policy or affect government conduct “by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
Within hours of the rampage in California on Wednesday, Twitter lit up with the debate.
“What happened in #SanBernardino is terrorism,” Linda Sarsour, a Muslim-American civil-rights activist from New York, wrote before any suspects were identified. “I don’t care what the race or religion of the perpetrators are.”
Tommy Vietor, a former national-security spokesman for President Obama, expressed exasperation with the fixation on the term.
“So frustrating how much we debate words to define the action, and how little we debate policy choices to prevent it,” he wrote.
His former boss, Obama, linked the San Bernardino attack to terrorism in a previously scheduled interview on CBS News on Wednesday afternoon while the incident was still unfolding as he made an argument for gun control.
“For those who are concerned about terrorism,” the president said, “some may be aware of the fact that we have a no-fly list where people can’t get on planes. But those same people who we don’t allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm — and there’s nothing that we can do to stop them. That’s a law that needs to be changed.”
Terrorism has a long history in the United States, from the rise of the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War to the emergence of the left-wing militant Weather Underground in the 1960s and 1970s to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by supporters of right-wing militias in 1995. But since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the term has been inextricably associated with foreign groups such as al-Qaida and, more recently, the Islamic State group.
The U.S. government, worried particularly about homegrown terrorists radicalized by overseas groups, has been more focused on domestic terrorism in recent years. Last year, the Justice Department announced the re-establishment of its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, created after the Oklahoma City bombing but defunct in recent years. A Congressional Research Service report last summer said domestic terrorists arise from any number of causes.
“They can be motivated to commit crimes in the name of ideas such as animal rights, white supremacy, anti-government beliefs and opposition to abortion, for example,” the report said.
But the definition of terrorism has been such a point of contention that Obama was criticized by Republicans in 2012 for not immediately using the word to describe the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, even though he used the phrase “act of terror.”
From the other side of the spectrum, a collection of groups supporting abortion rights has been pressing the Justice Department to define attacks on abortion clinics as acts of domestic terrorism, a campaign that picked up steam after last week’s shootings at the Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs. Gov. John Hickenlooper called the killings there “a form of terrorism.”
While federal authorities have specific laws to charge those tied to extremist groups overseas, such as providing material support to terrorist organizations, there is no specific domestic-terrorism statute. Instead, federal authorities turn to other statutes that carry the death penalty. These have the same practical effect in terms of punishment, but to some critics do not convey the seriousness a designation of terrorism would.
Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, for instance, was convicted of multiple counts of murder and conspiracy. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Chechen brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, was convicted of using weapons of mass destruction, among other charges. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was convicted of 45 counts of murder or attempted murder for the Fort Hood massacre and sentenced to death in a trial in which the word “terrorism” was never used in front of the jury.
After nine black parishioners were shot by a white supremacist in their church in Charleston, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she could not charge the suspect with domestic terrorism because there was no such crime on the books. Instead, the department brought a variety of other federal charges against Dylann Roof, including hate-crime charges, on top of state murder counts.
Lynch, the first black woman to run the Justice Department, indicated that in the end, they were basically the same thing.
“Make no mistake,” she said. “Hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism.”
But that has not ended the debate.