What Qualifies as Terrorism?

Ever since Joe Stack flew his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas last week, discussion has raged, once again, about how to classify his action. It's a discussion that has taken on new bite ever since the attacks of 9/11, when suddenly "terrorism" and "radical Islamic militants" became fused in the minds of many Americans.

Is a man whose erratic behavior causes his wife and child to flee their home, which he then burns to the ground before flying his plane into a building, killing himself and others in the process...crazy? Or a terrorist? Or...perhaps both?

And before passing judgment on that, what about a woman who's denied tenure at a university who returns with a gun and kills and wounds several colleagues in revenge and anger? Or, just to pull in yet another story that was back in the news this past week, what about an anthrax researcher who appears to have a split personality, and who allegedly mails anthrax to various government officials and media outlets...seemingly in the hopes of increasing funding for anthrax research? Or what about an Army psychiatrist--reportedly upset over the presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan and the prospect of his imminent deployment there, but who was also in touch with a radical cleric and who had espoused some radical and militant views of Islam--who walks into an Army facility and kills 13 people and wounds 30 others? Or, just to add another layer to the confusion...what about a sniper who intentionally terrorizes the entire Washington, D.C. community with serial attacks, with clear malice aforethought?

In other words, does terrorism have to have another agenda besides spreading terror? And is terrorism only an act that comes out of cold, calculating effort, with full knowledge, intent, and malice aforethought? If someone "snaps," does that mean their ensuing violence is, by definition, the act of a crazy person, not a terrorist? And is there a difference between people who "snap?" Is there a clear difference between someone who goes "postal" at their place of work or study, like Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, and someone who goes "postal" at their place of work but has disturbing Islamic ties, like Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood?

Ever since the attacks of 9/11, the word "terrorism" has been thrown around a lot by traumatized and worried Americans. A hundred people might have 100 different ideas of what the word means, and who is and isn't a "terrorist," in a 2010 world. But there are actually some very clear, and surprising, guidelines for what, at least officially, constitutes a "terrorist" act.

First and foremost, the "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" of 1996 spelled out a very clear definition of what acts and crimes fall under the "Federal Definition of Terrorism" (a definition modified somewhat by the U.S.A Patriot Act). Section 2332 of U.S. Code 18C113B states that terrorism is an act that "is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct," and is also a violation of any number of prohibited acts, including: "killing or attempted killing during an attack on a Federal facility with a dangerous weapon," and "killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the United States."

The list is actually quite long, and extends far beyond those two prohibitions. It does seem to disqualify the D.C. sniper as a terrorist, on the basis of his not having an agenda to retaliate against or change government policy or action (at least, that I know of). And I didn't find anything on the list of qualifying acts that seemed to cover a student or professor "snapping" and shooting their colleagues, as long as those colleagues weren't government employees. But what's interesting is that while the basic facts of Major Nidal Hasan's attack on his colleagues at Ft. Hood bears far more resemblance--at least on the surface--to the profile of both the Virginia Tech and the University of Alabama shootings than the attacks on the World Trade Center, what sets his case apart as a terrorist act--at least according to statute--isn't his Islamic ties.

It may be that Maj. Hasan carried out his shooting spree not as a result of "snapping," but as a cold and deliberate act of political terrorism. I don't have enough information to make that call, one way or another. But consider this. If Maj. Hasan had been a Caucasian Christian but had disagreed with the war in Afghanistan and objected to being deployed there, and had, out of anger over those two items, blazed into the base at Ft. Hood and started shooting, he still would be guilty of a terrorist act, according to statute. His actions would still have been an effort to retaliate against, or influence, government action ... and they would have been directed against officers and employees of the U.S. government. Namely, other members of the U.S. Army.

Likewise, Joe Stack may have just "snapped" and crashed his plane into the IRS building in a rage of unbalanced frustration. But his electronic suicide note/manifesto, complaining about the IRS policies that were ruining him, seems to indicate that he wanted to retaliate against the IRS (read: government) actions, and perhaps make a statement that might get those actions to change. And he killed people during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon: his airplane. So Joe Stack would also appear to be, by definition, a terrorist.

If Dr. Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008 but whom the F.B.I. asserted, in their report closing out the case this past week, was the man behind the Anthrax attacks of 2001, did in fact conduct lethal biological attacks using the U.S. postal system to advance an government agenda supporting more funding for anthrax research, then he would be guilty of terrorism on several counts (using biological weapons, using the mail system to conduct the attack, and the attempted killing of U.S. government officials).

But there's an interesting wrinkle in the Ivins case. In trying to evaluate whether Joe Stack or Maj. Nidal Hisan are terrorists, a question that quickly arises is whether they might have been more crazy than terrorist. After all, few well-balanced, healthy people would take out their anger about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, or IRS policy, by killing innocent bystanders and giving up their own lives and futures in the process. In that sense, the reactions of Joe Stack and Maj. Hasan would seem to be in the same unbalanced category as Amy Bishop, who's accused of shooting her fellow University of Alabama colleagues after being denied tenure. A perceived injustice, followed by a fury and a lethal, way-out-of-balance reaction.

But then, one could also argue that strapping explosives onto your body and intentionally blowing up yourself and other innocent humans is a "lethal, way-out-of-balance reaction" to a perceived cultural, political or military injustice. So where does the line lie, if there is one?

In general, the answer seems to be that if the act fits under the statute definition of terrorism, the fact that person wasn't 100 percent balanced--or even that their imbalance may have led to the act--doesn't seem to matter. Out of all the cases mentioned above, the only one where it seemed a plea of insanity might overrule the charges of terrorism would be that of Bruce Ivins. If, in fact, he really had a dual personality and "crazy Bruce" did the attacks, and "good Bruce" had no knowledge of what crazy Bruce was doing, then he might qualify for an insanity plea. (Insanity pleas don't work often, but most states apparently agree that if a defendant's illness leaves them unaware of what they're doing, or unable to understand that it's wrong, then they're a candidate for that plea.)

Interestingly enough, there's actually a "guilty but mentally ill" (GBMI) plea that carries the same punishment as a guilty plea, but apparently allows for some leeway in sentencing, as well as psychiatric treatment while in prison. In a GBMI plea, however, even if the defendant is deemed "healthy" at some point, he or she still serves out the rest of their prison sentence.

What does all that mean? Among other things, it means that even if Joe Stack and Maj. Nidal Hasan were unbalanced and "snapped," just like Professor Amy Bishop, they, apparently, are terrorists, while she--if the allegations are proven--would seem to be "just" an unbalanced murderer.

It's hard to judge the exact intentions of an unbalanced mind. Is an act the result of simple, twisted rage, or an attempt to influence a government policy? Undoubtedly, that's why the clause about "retaliation" was included in the federal definition of terrorism.

But in all the argument about who is and who isn't a terrorist, it's worth taking a step back from the heated discussion to see what the books say. They don't make the messiness of horrific acts understandable, or even clear. But they at least offer a calm and rational standard by which we have agreed to judge the actions of others.