Terrorism or tragedy?

Glen Newey

Up to a point, the US is to guns as the Netherlands is to bicycles. Both bits of kit are widely owned, used and even venerated in their respective lands. Their users can mobilise powerful lobbies. On Saturday on the Haarlemmerstraat I saw an irate motorist get out of his vehicle to bawl at a cyclist. He was quickly surrounded by passers-by and forced back into his car. It was a more satisfactory outcome than some disputes between gun users. But then – and here’s where the analogy begins to give out – bikes aren’t generally designed to kill people.

‘Terrorism’ and ‘tragedy’ thrive in different semantic fields. After the murders in San Bernardino last week the media were at first stumped about whether to call it ‘terror’ or just another ‘tragic’ gun massacre. Fortunately, it’s turned out to be terrorism, and IS-inspired at that. Unislamic shootings, by contrast, are as American as apple pie. Gun murders in the US yield an annual harvest of about four 9/11s (that’s without accidents and suicides). The victims of mass shootings tragically find themselves in the crosshairs of a nutter with a gun – though the NRA and other lobbyists point out that insofar as the victims aren’t themselves armed, they’ve only themselves to blame.

There remains a nagging doubt that terrorism and tragedy bear a passing likeness – for instance, from the standpoint of the victims. But as James Coney from the FBI said about San Bernardino, things ‘pushed us off the cliff’ into diagnosing terrorism when the killers turned out to be ‘ideologically’ motivated. The cliff separating the high from the low ground proves, however, to be something of a molehill. Quite a lot of down-home gun slaughter is avowedly ideological. Jared Loughner, who took out six people in a failed assassination attempt on congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford in 2011, did so in his crusade against ‘federalist laws’. The Sandy Hook mass murderer Adam Lanza averred that ‘an AK-47 and enough ammunition could do more good than a thousand “teachers”, if one is truly interested in reforming the system.’

Such thoughts are not confined to a few psychotics. Others agree, often in mainstream forums. In the Washington Times a couple of years ago, the Fox News 'senior judicial analyst' Andrew Napolitano pointed out that as ‘we have been created in the image and likeness of God the Father, we are perfectly free just as He is’, a fact he adduced to show that ‘the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants.’ It would seem that the Father bestows his blessing on any two-bit Timothy McVeigh with an outsize grudge over his tax bill and ordnance to match. Only the Founding Fathers’ enshrining of their right to carry 200-rounds-per-minute machine-guns – Napolitano concludes, echoing the views of the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia – is protecting everyone from ‘the mania and terror of a few’. Loughner, who acted on his conviction that the government was ‘fucking us over’, emerges as an all-American zero, a latter-day king of the wild frontier.

Meanwhile in the UK, a knife-wielder who reportedly said 'This is for Syria' while stabbing his victims in Leytonstone Tube station managed to set off a major media splash. Presumably from now on any attention-seeker who mentions the latest crusade while in flagrante, from carrying out a mugging to urinating in a public place, can expect similar airtime, with a suitably draconian securitising response.

Obviously there’s good and bad ideology, but sifting the one from the other can prove awkward. Loughton’s bid to kill Gifford was reportedly triggered by her failure to answer a question he had put to her in a public meeting: ‘What is government if words have no meaning?’ Their terror is our God-given freedom. San Bernardino may well not be the last ‘home-grown’ IS-inspired killing in the American homeland. Policy-makers will have to square an awkward triangle, comprising the following propositions:

1. Acts of terrorism, by common consent, need to be prevented ‘by all necessary means';
2. Weapons of mass killing, in the form of automatic weapons, are easily and legally available;
3. US-based IS sympathisers minded to perform acts like those in 1 have their job made much easier by the truth of 2.


  • 7 December 2015 at 7:51pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    Quite so.

    The (fairly) ready availability of weapons was clearly an issue in the recent Paris attacks, although such weapons are probably still harder to come by in Europe than in the US. When I lived in Belgium, the general availability of unregistered arms (mostly small-calibre rifles) was notable compared with the UK, where access to any firearm was strictly controlled.

    France has always been much more the wild west of Europe than anywhere else with regard to weapons: you can do a lot of damage with a shotgun, widely available from hypermarkets in rural areas. But the leakage of automatic weapons from the East has clearly made things much more dangerous than previously.

    But I would like to make this point: every such act is an act of terrorism, whether apparently made for ideological reasons (à la ISIS) or the work of a lone assassin. The lone assassin usually has his own weird but certainly ideological reasons. These may seem bonkers to the outsider, but usually have a twisted logic of their own.

    To put the weapons of mass killing into any of these people's hands is an act of unbelievable irresponsibility. The US is just more culpable because of its unfathomable attachment to such weapons and their sale. But Europe, for all its supposedly stricter polices, does not seem to be doing a particularly good job, either.

    • 8 December 2015 at 9:53am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Alan Benfield
      "These may seem bonkers to the outsider, but usually have a twisted logic of their own." I'm not sure what you mean here. Is 'twisted logic' a valid reason for committing such an act?

    • 8 December 2015 at 11:35am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Not at all, Geoff, in fact, quite the opposite. I have never been able to find any valid reasons for committing such acts.

      What I was trying to say is that I see little point in making the distinction which some do between the 'domestic' political terrorism of Timothy McVeigh, the 'ISIS-inspired' terrorism recently perpetrated in Paris and San Bernardino, the religiously inspired terrorism of those who fire-bomb abortion clinics and gun down their staff or the (what we might refer to as) narcissistic terrorism of the lone shooter: they are all of a piece, with the common denominator being the ease of access to weapons.

      Sorry if this was not clear.

      I also tend to agree with streetsj below (not a common occurrence, by the way) that 'criminal' is a perfectly adequate description: 'terrorist' tends to give these people too much glamour, in a perverse sort of way. Better to merely name them as criminals and treat them as such - it takes some of the shine off.

      Maybe I'm getting old, but I tire of hearing the excuses made for those who randomly deprive others, innocents, of their lives or health, physical or mental, in support of some twisted world-view of their own.

      This can never be right.

    • 9 December 2015 at 12:45pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Alan Benfield
      There is nothing irrational about terrorism; it’s just wrong, both morally and practically (unless, Joker style, the aim is chaos). And it’s only by understanding its logic that we can hope to end it: these people aren’t killing because they love death, they are killing because they want to make a better world.

      They look at the numerous injustices inflicted by the West (after WWII we supported monstrous dictatorships all over the world as long as they were anti-Soviet, and we still support monsters who sell us the things we need) and instead of seeing it in the context of our species climbing out of a medieval hell, they combine it with their own angst into a righteous hatred.

      Criminals kill for personal gain and fun, terrorists for a cause - the two blend into each other, as one colour does another, but they are different things. Understanding the why of horrible behaviour is not to condone it, but it is necessary if one hopes to end it.

    • 10 December 2015 at 10:28am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Joe Morison
      Never said they were irrational, Joe - read the words, not what you want them to say. Let's agree, however, that whatever the motives, these actions are wrong and forget about which label to apply to those who commit them.

      "Criminals kill for personal gain and fun": really? Not always. Sometimes they do so in a moment of panic, or uncontrollable anger, or by accident. And if you scratch a young western jihadi, will you often not find a thrill-seeking young man underneath? Freedom fighter, terrorist or criminal? - you choose.

      But I have to take issue with your idea that they (terrorists? what do we call them now?) are fighting for a 'better' world: no, they are seeking to impose their idea of the world on everyone else and those who do not agree must be exterminated, it seems.

      I agree that the questions we pose here are difficult and the answers inevitably nuanced, but, equally, seeking explanations for such behaviour can all too easily blend into apologetics.

    • 10 December 2015 at 1:25pm
      semitone says: @ Geoff Roberts
      John Ralston Saul covers this in a lot of detail in Voltaire's Bastards: the idea being that the murder of six million Jews was a perfectly rational act, but that we (society and individuals both) assign blame for our crimes to irrational impulses.

    • 11 December 2015 at 11:37am
      Joe Morison says: @ Alan Benfield
      If something is logical, it is rational; if it is illogical, it is irrational - I'm not quite sure what twisted logic is if it's not logic that has been twisted into illogic.

      As for criminals: if they kill in panic, that's presumably when they're engaged in illegally enriching themselves; anger isn't exactly fun, so, if you insist, replace 'fun' with 'for their own satisfaction'; and if it's an accident, that's not criminal (though their having the means to kill may well be).

      Of course, the motives driving these people will be complex. Yes, to thrill seeking; yes, for some, to the joy of killing. But without the moral imperative which so many of them see, there would be minimal enlistment to Daesh. I agree with you about the ghastliness of their idea of what a better world is (but it is their idea of a better world), and about their hideous intolerance; but unless we understand how they see their own behaviour, we have no chance of changing it.

      Finally, as I said above, to understand why someone does something is in no way to condone it - I may be an atheist, but 'love the sinner, hate the sin' is as wise an instruction as any I know in this area.

    • 15 December 2015 at 8:48pm
      John Cowan says: @ Joe Morison
      Accidents can certainly be criminal. If you aim at A, miss, and accidentally hit B, that's murder, not accidental death. There's a pithy saying about it: "There are no accidents during the commission of a felony". While this is no longer true in its fullest extent in the UK, Canada, or Ireland, it is definitely true in the U.S.

  • 8 December 2015 at 8:53am
    streetsj says:
    I agree with Glen Newey. (First time I think.)

    I wonder too whether we shouldn't stop using the word "terrorist" altogether and use something neutral like criminal or perpetrator or irritant or even something pejorative like madman.

  • 8 December 2015 at 9:58am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Mr. Trump wants to exclude all Muslims from the USA. A few days ago, he said that if the French people had been armed, "then the massacre on 13 November would not have happened." Now that's what I call twisted logic. If that man were to win next year he'll have kids in first grade doing shooting practice right after the national anthem. Where the hell are the voices or reason in today's America? Who is going to stop Trump?

    • 8 December 2015 at 11:36am
      Joe Morison says: @ Geoff Roberts
      A frequent comment underneath recent articles calling for more gun control has been along the lines of ‘Just when the bad guys are getting it together to attack us in our own country, you folk are calling for more gun control. You really are insane.’ But guns could only have been of use in San Bernardino if people were routinely armed at parties. Compare it with Leytonstone where just one person was seriously injured, imagine if that not-a-Muslim had been armed the way mass killers are in the States are.

    • 8 December 2015 at 11:44am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Geoff Roberts
      ...including, it seems, American citizens who are Muslims but presently abroad, perhaps even including those serving in the armed forces and diplomatic service*. Is the man mad?

      I wonder, will the GOP really go so far as to adopt Trump as their official candidate? And if not, will he keep his promise not to stand as an independent (thus splitting the loony right vote and denying them the presidency)?

      May we live in interesting times...


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