Fixing America’s hypocritical usage of the word ‘terrorist’

Robert Dear was arrested in connection with the recent abortion clinic shootings in Colorado.
Robert Dear was arrested in connection with the recent abortion clinic shootings in Colorado. AP

The arrest of Robert Dear, the suspect in the Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic shootings, is forcing America to confront a basic bit of its own hypocrisy when it comes to how the word “terrorist” gets thrown around.

Dictionary.com defines a terrorist as someone who uses “violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” The FBI defines a domestic terrorist as one who uses or threatens to use such force within the United States in hopes of furthering “political or social objectives.”

Dear reportedly told authorities “no more baby parts” after he was arrested in the murders of a police officer and two civilians at the clinic.

That seems to be a reference to the controversy that flared this summer when an anti-abortion group released undercover videos that showed a Planned Parenthood official discussing the procurement of fetal tissue when conducting abortions. Conservatives said it showed the organization profits from selling baby parts – which would be illegal. Planned Parenthood said it covers its costs in procuring such tissues, but doesn’t make profits.

If Dear is convicted of the clinic murders, and if the evidence shows that he did so specifically to intimidate abortion providers and to stop such procedures, that would make him a domestic terrorist, right? And he would be referred to as such in the media and by our political leaders, right?

Wrong. We tend to save the word “terrorist” in this country for Muslim extremists like the 9/11 hijackers. We do this even though a 2014 UNC Chapel Hill study found that, since 9/11, terrorism by Muslim-Americans has killed 37 people in the U.S. (That compares to 190,000 murders in that time period). Domestic terrorists tend to be white guys with guns and a grudge, but perhaps lacking a sound mind.

Yet, even if Dear is convicted, the word “terrorist” likely won’t stick to him. We still don’t say “domestic terrorist Dylann Roof,” even though the young white South Carolina man who shot nine black parishioners in a historic Charleston church earlier this year voiced hopes of sparking a race war.

We do ourselves – and the truth – a disservice in our selective usage of the word “terrorist.” Aren’t murderous inner-city drug lords domestic terrorists? Regardless of whether they ever voice political or social goals, the worst of them are some of the most effective terrorists on the planet. They use violence, and threats of violence, to rob people of their sense of security.

When we decide to apply the word “terrorist” to a person or group, that person or group gets the most aggressive response we can muster. It’s time to unchain the word from its artificially narrow linkage to one religion, or one sector of the globe.

Let’s use it to describe anyone who takes multiple lives in deliberately public fashion. Let’s define it according to the method, as well as the motive. And if that method spurs metal detectors in our schools or inserts a twinge of fear when lights go down in movie theaters, then that’s terrorism in its purest sense.

If we’re truly going to fight terrorism, let’s look at the full range of what’s terrorizing us, and let’s attack the whole spectrum with the same sense of national purpose – if not the same military options – as we employ against the terrorists from the Middle East. Eric Frazier