The place to start, in distinguishing between these attacks, is by defining terrorism. The word has been politicized like few others, used as a rhetorical tool to demonize society’s villains du jour. Even within academic and policy circles, there is dispute over its precise meaning. Within the U.S. government, terrorism is a word usually, and improperly, reserved for jihadist extremists, due in part to the political proclivities of the moment and the statutory definition of terrorism, which is for the most part restricted to specifically designated foreign-terrorist organizations.
For most who deal with the issue day in and day out, though, terrorism is public violence to advance a political, social, or religious cause or ideology. Some variation remains as far as the details (many people distinguish between military and civilian targets, for instance, or stipulate that the perpetrator be a nonstate actor), but this broad definition has been widely adopted in the almost 17 years since September 11 and the launch of the Global War on … well, you know.
In the Waffle House shooting, no information has so far emerged to suggest that the attack was intended to advance an ideology, even though the perpetrator was apparently an extremist adherent. The investigation, of course, is still in its early days. Sometimes it takes years of investigation to gather enough information to make a correct assessment. But some details of the attack (the attacker’s nudity, the timing, and choice of target) seem to point in a different direction. Reinking’s involvement in sovereign citizenry may have contributed to his violent tendencies, but there is nothing to suggest his attack was meant to be instrumental.
The Toronto attack presents a very different situation. The driver posted a statement moments before the attack began. Although too brief to be considered a manifesto, that statement nevertheless contains all the elements necessary to deem this terrorism.
Minassian’s post announces that the revolution has begun, in the form of his attack, an extremely typical terrorist motive. Timothy McVeigh was very clear that this was the goal of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which is universally considered terrorism. Minassian’s ideology may be stupid or pathetic, but most terrorist ideologies are when examined closely enough. Stupidity and pathos are not disqualifying.
Furthermore, beneath Minassian’s ideological jargon (which could easily be mistaken for lunatic ramblings), the statement contains all the standard components of extremist belief, including an in-group (the group to which an extremist belongs, in this case, the sexually deprived incels) and an out-group (the group targeted by the extremist group, in this case, Chads and Stacys, which translates from incelspeak as people with normal sex lives).