It's Terrorism, Stupid!

April 14th, 2014 - "Heil Hitler", the man shouted when he was done. By then, he had shot to death three people: a 14 year old boy, his grandfather, and an unidentified woman. All three were Jews. All three had been killed at a Jewish community center near Kansas City. The killer, Frazier Glen Miller, is the founder and leader of the "Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" as well as the "White Patriot Party".

There can be no doubt that this deed, which occurred on Sunday, was motivated by antisemitism  and that the perpetrator is a rightwing extremist and a racist. Yet no-one seems to be willing to call this an act of terrorism. Instead, the NYT, The Washington Post and CNN are calling it a "shooting" or a "shooting spree".


Why does this attack not qualify as an act of terrorism? There are many definitions of terrorism, but most combine two elements: The victims are civilians, and the motif is political and/or ideological. Is that not true in this case? Of course it is.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Boston bombing, which was perpetrated by two brothers of Chechen background and of Muslim faith. In their case, there never was any doubt that they had perpetrated an act of terrorism. When Mohamed Merah killed seven people in Southern France in March 2012, among them soldiers as well as members of the Jewish community, everybody called it terrorism.

To be sure, the Boston attackers had used explosives against people - what other than terrorism could that possibly be? And Merah claimed he was a member of al-Qaida (which could never be substantiated).

But I still don't see why the Kansas City attack would be something entirely different.

I am not talking about judicial terms that may be applicable here. I am talking about journalistic reflexes. Because there is a hidden pattern behind this not calling the attack an act of terrorism. An Islamist who commits an act of violence and is being called a terrorist is being made and interpreted as a part of something larger - a group, a scene, a movement - by this very designation. By the same token, failing to call the Kansas City attack an act of terrorism will let Frazier Glen Miller and his deed appear unconnected to anything larger or broader.

The Boston bombers were not connected to other militant extremists in any meaningful way. They planned their attack by themselves. Of course there is still a connection between what they did and what other Islamist extremists did elsewhere in the world. But that connection is not factual; it is a connection in the sphere of phenomenology.

Is that any different in the case of the Kansas City attack? I believe not.

I believe that Miller's attack is, for example, as connected to the Nazi-Terrorist series of ten murders committed by the NSU in Germany as the Boston Bombing is connected to, say, the Jihadist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

Or to put it differently: If we (and not unrightly so) connect militant Islamists with one another because they shout "Allahu Akbar" while they are killing people, we should also see the connection between people shouting "Heil Hitler" while murdering Jews. We talk about the "Global Jihadist Movement" all the time. There also is a global anti-semitic, far-right movement that resorts to violence against civilians.

I am not trying to allocate blame here. I am just concerned that some of us journalists have not been able to insulate themselves fully from the impression that since 9/11 terrorism is an exclusively Islamist phenomenon. Whereas in fact, as we all know, the majority of terrorist attacks world wide are not committed by Islamists.

PS: In the interest of full disclosure, I was inspired by Thomas Hegghammer's tweet when blogging this. Here is how his tweet went: "@Hegghammer Convicted white supremacist massacres Jews, shouts Heil Hitler, but is still not a "terrorist" to CNN and KS police:" 

PPS: Also see for a similar take. 

PPS: This is a slightly edited version of a German blog post that I published earlier today at DIE ZEIT's website, the paper that I work for. 

1 comment:

  1. Just a quick clarification: none of the victims were Jewish - 2 were Methodists, one was Catholic. This does not diminish at all the terror and horror of the crime - this is, indeed, a terrorist act.