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Murder, terrorism or anything but terrorism?

Glen Miller was referred to as an 'avowed anti-Semite,' an 'extremist,' but was never designated a terrorist

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Terrorism is as old as organized human society. The tiny Greek city-states suffered from it as well as the mighty Roman Empire and every subsequent empire and great power, including the United States. Yet, there is no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism.

But many would agree that any definition of terrorism should include these elements in the U.S. federal code which define it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Terrorism therefore is a tool, a tactic and not an ideology.

That’s why there are left wing and right wing terrorists. Throughout the history of organized religion terrorists have killed with abandon, driven by their twisted interpretation of what they believed to be the absolutist certainty conferred upon them and their deeds by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other religions.

What’s in a name?

There is a long history of political violence and “homegrown” terrorism in the United States carried out by once powerful and relatively large groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) which was established in 1865 after the Civil War by defeated Confederate officers who believed in white racial superiority.

The KKK employed terroristic tactics on a wide scale against African Americans, conducting night time raids to kill, intimidate and destroy property. Many of their victims were brutally lynched publicly for maximum effect.

There were other terrorist groups on the left and the right that engaged in bombings, assassinations, along with the occasional lone wolf terrorist like the infamous Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and the most infamous pair of U.S. terrorists in the 20th century: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 which killed 168 people.

Four sitting American presidents have been assassinated and six were targets of assassination attempts. Scores of governors, senators, representatives and mayors were assassinated or were targets of violent acts. The 20th century was marred by waves of violence: at the turn of the century, the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the 1960’s and the 1970’s.

Yet most American scholars, historians and journalists rarely describe the groups or the assassins, even when their motives are political and ideological, as terrorists. For most Americans, terrorism is an international phenomenon and terrorists are usually foreigners.

Zealots, Hashhasheen, and freedom fighters

Not all terrorists are alike, since their motives vary widely. History is full of examples of national and popular political movements fighting to achieve legitimate objectives such as independence or resisting authoritarian rule and employing at times the illegitimate tools of terrorism as an integral part of the struggle.

This has been true since the so-called Jewish Zealots fought Roman occupation all the way to the modern struggles of the Algerian, South African, Irish, Palestinian and other peoples for self-determination. A political horizon is usually required to settle these struggles.

Just as al-Qaeda’s twisted vision of establishing an Islamic Caliphate based on an atavistic, violent and intolerant interpretation of Islam is frightening and impossible to achieve, likewise the vision of some American right wing and racist groups of wishing away Muslims and Jews and reasserting and reestablishing “white supremacy” is equally frightening and impossible to achieve.

Hisham Melhem

Here, a nationalist freedom fighter like Nelson Mandela was described by his enemies as a “terrorist,” before they changed their minds and joined the world in seeing him as the visionary statesman that he was. However, throughout history there has been another strain of terrorism that is rooted in nihilistic impulses, apocalyptic visions, and religious cults let by charismatic leaders.

This is true of the so-called assassins (from the Arabic Hashhashin) of medieval Persia and Syria established a secret society and dispatched young Fida’is to assassinate their enemies, preferably in broad daylight in suicide attacks.

This phenomena took place all the way to the anarchists of 19th century Europe, who terrorized every political order on the continent from Madrid to Moscow, to the Shining Path in Peru who engaged in gruesome ritualistic killings, and the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, infamous for their sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and ultimately to al-Qaeda and its affiliates today.

For these groups there cannot be an acceptable political horizon since their visions are so nihilistic and irrational that it is impossible to reconcile them in any political arrangement.

The assassins employed the dagger as their preferred weapon, the anarchists of 19th century Europe employed the bomb and the pistol, and al-Qaeda employed civilian airplanes as missiles on 9/11. The weapons and the tools of terrorism are varied and different, but in all of these cases the terrorists were driven by the same nihilistic, absolutist impulses.

To fully understand the immense influence of terrorism and anarchist discourse and actions on European societies, politics, literature, and the arts all you have to do is to check some of the best novels written by the greats such as Dostoyevsky (Demons, The Brother Karamazov) Zola (Germinal, including the amazing terrorist character Souvarine), Turgenev (Fathers and sons) who popularized the concept of nihilism, and others like Dickens and Balzac.

Terror on a quiet Sunday afternoon

Last Sunday an elderly man with extensive history of preaching and practicing hate against Jews and African-Americans, went on the prowl to hunt for Jews on the eve of Passover. The quiet of Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, was shattered when Glen Miller,73, armed with a shot gun and a pistol stopped at two Jewish centers and fired at people randomly, hoping to kill as many Jews as possible.

When the brief rampage stopped a doctor, his 14- year old grandson, and an elderly woman were killed. While sitting in a police car, Miller reportedly yelled to a local television camera “Heil Hitler.” We don’t know if Miller understands irony, since his three victims turned out to be Christians.

Miller had several run-ins with the law and served prison sentences on charges of weapons possession, assassination attempt and intimidating African-Americans. He believes that Jews control the government and that they are committing “genocide against the white race.” He even described himself in a radio interview as a “proud terrorist.” In 1980 when he founded the White Patriot Party, he said that its goal was “the creation of an all-white nation” in the South.

Anything but Terror

The word “terrorism” was never used by either law enforcement agencies or the media in connection with Miller’s pre-meditated violence against civilians because (he thought) they belong to a specific community. The act was described by the media as a “shooting spree” and a “terrible outburst of violence.”

The suspected killer was described as an “avowed anti-Semite,” an “extremist” and a the preferred designation of many reports: a “lone wolf.” No one referred to Miller as a terrorist or to his action as terrorism, although the violence seems to be in accordance with the Justice Department’s definition of terrorism, since it was politically and ideologically motivated, premeditated, directed at civilians who belong to a certain group, and was meant to reverberate beyond the immediate victims and terrorize the wider community they belong to.

Miller was charged with one count of capital murder and with first-degree premeditated murder. These charges give prosecutors, the option of seeking the death penalty. It is possible also, that Miller could be charged later with committing a hate crime.

This is a more serious crime and could lead to federal involvement because these crimes are committed on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity and gender and like terrorism their intent is to terrorize a wider group or community beyond the immediate victims of violence.

It is very likely, if the killer was not Miller, but a fictitious Muslim American named Mohammad Hussein Mustapha, who while killing his supposedly Jewish victims shouted “Allah Akbar,” the media, law enforcement and the public would have describe it as an act of domestic terrorism carried out by an Islamic extremist.

Terror in Boston

Miller’s bloody trail near Kansas City occurred on the eve of the first anniversary of the Boston bombing which was perpetrated by Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev two Muslim brothers of Chechen background. There was no doubt even before the identity of the Tsarnaev brothers was revealed that the Boston bombing, maybe because the attackers used explosives (albeit not very sophisticated ones) was an act of terror.

Anyone who had any doubt became certain that the Tsarnaevs are terrorists and their act was terrorism when their identity, history and contacts were established. The Boston bombing killed 3 people, like the Kansas killing, and both attacks were politically and ideologically motivated, and they were directed at civilians, with the intention to terrorize a larger community.

The Tsarnaev brothers were not members of any known terrorist organization, but they saw themselves as soldiers in an international army or a movement with an ideology, a world view and engaged in protracted struggle against those who are responsible directly for the agony of Chechnya and those they consider complicit in its pain. Likewise, Miller’s membership or lack thereof of any violent group is immaterial, because he was acting as if he is representative of a larger group driven by a specific world view, a broader movement that has a clear set of enemies that should be terrorized.

It seems that there is political resistance on the part of the government and the media to calling Miller’s action terrorism, and lawyers and legal scholars are quick to obfuscate and resort to “legalese” to avoid using “terrorism.” To designate violent groups like the KKK a terrorist organization, and acts by individuals like Miller and the Tsarnaev as terrorists, is important legally and more importantly, politically.

Such designation will force the authorities to deal with this strain of domestic terrorism with more urgency and resources, after all since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the U.S. has been on war footing against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in large swaths of lands, and not only in the Muslim world.

Just as al-Qaeda’s twisted vision of establishing an Islamic Caliphate based on an atavistic, violent and intolerant interpretation of Islam is frightening and impossible to achieve, likewise the vision of some American right wing and racist groups of wishing away Muslims and Jews and reasserting and reestablishing “white supremacy” is equally frightening and impossible to achieve.

Terrorism is ubiquitous; it is not only an international or Islamist phenomenon and it has established roots and branches in the U.S. just as elsewhere. Terrorism unfortunately cannot be eradicated because there will always be men and women who are willing to die for an idea, a vision or become intoxicated by a charismatic leader.

Recognizing that there are homegrown terrorists among us, that we need to understand, confront and defeat, will go a long way in correcting the skewed discourse on terrorism in America, and will help ultimately in giving the United States a much better immune system.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.