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We need to redefine terrorism

Caleb HendrichAssumptions can be dangerous things. They can lead to extraordinary bad calls, embarrassing mistakes and, more often than not, make bad situations into worse situations.

How law enforcement deals with the aftermath of an attack is almost always a delicate situation. The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing is no different. But, we now know a lot more about the means of the suspected attackers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, than we did a week ago.


What we do not know, however, is exactly why the suspects decided to do what they did. Their motivation is, at the present, unknown, and it’s very likely that we won’t know the full picture for a while.

For one thing, one of the suspects is dead. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two, was killed during the citywide hunt for him and his younger brother. Dzhokar isn’t exactly in the best position to answer questions either, as he is in critical condition after allegedly attempting to commit suicide prior to his capture.

However, the uncertain nature of the brother’s motives has not stopped people from asserting bold and unfounded claims about them. Representative Peter King (R-NY), along with several other Congressional lawmakers, have insisted that the United States treat Dzhokar as an “enemy combatant” and transfer him to the military for interrogation.

Representative King offered no proof as to why we should treat Dzhokar, a naturalized American citizen, as if he were an active member of Al-Qaeda that the army picked up on a foreign battlefield.

In a statement to, Rep. King said “I think these two obviously were Islamic terrorists motivated by Islamist views.” He seems to be convinced of this fact, not because there has been any evidence that both Tsarnaev brothers were affiliated with an Islamist group, but instead because they both happened to be Muslim.

He stated earlier in the interview that there have been “16 terror plots against New York (since September 11, 2001), all Islamist-based. We’re at war with Islamic terrorism. It’s coming from people within the Muslim community by the terrorists coming from that community, just like the mafia comes from Italian communities.”

The statement by Representative King illustrates a very common and highly dangerous assumption about what terrorism actually entails. For many people, not just elected officials, the word “terrorism” has become synonymous with “Islamic terrorism.” The word conjures up an image of a suicide bomber, with his head wrapped in a turban, hailing from a Middle Eastern country.

It’s an assumption that is not only wrong, but it also blinds us to a lot of other dangers. It ignores the reality that terrorism can come from just about every sort of background. It forgets that the general definition of “terrorism” includes violence, or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of a political objective.

For instance, it came from Timothy McVeigh when he detonated several tons of explosives outside the Oklahoma City Federal Building. McVeigh was a combat veteran and Roman Catholic; clearly not an Islamic terrorist.


Or what about Joseph Stack, a man who flew a single-engine plane into the IRS building in Austin, TX in 2010, killing himself and another. Stack was someone else who had an axe to grind against the United States government, but was also clearly not a radical Islamist.

It doesn’t even have to be someone who is radically anti-government either. Eco-terrorism certainly fits the bill. Do groups like the Sea Shepherds (a radical environmentalist group that targets whalers and other business interests at sea) or the Earth Liberation Front (a group dedicated to combating environmental damage with guerrilla warfare) not count as terrorist groups because they aren’t from the Middle East?

We cannot just limit ourselves to just looking at Islamic extremists when we talk about terrorism, because to say that terrorism is exclusive Islam is woefully of the mark. It is a crime that can come from any point on the religious or political spectrum.

Islam is not the only place from which it comes from, as a terrorist can be of any faith or philosophy. It doesn’t exclusively come from abroad or from foreigners either. How we define, and consequently how we counteract, terrorism, has to reflect that reality.

Editorial Editor Caleb Hendrich is a senior Journalism and Political Science double major. His columns appear Tuesday in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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    Collin237Dec 29, 2013 at 1:09 am

    You’re correct that there is no logical connection between terrorism and Islam. But even though few Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists currently are Muslims. It is the terrorists that are being illogical and seeing a false connection. Nobody is going to “catch” their illogic by admitting the trend.

    I’m sick of everyone saying that Islam is either unpunishable or unrewardable. Islam is fracturing, and becoming bric-a-brac for lunatics. It can be rebuilt only from the outside.