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When Is a ‘Terrorist’ Really a Terrorist?


How do you define terrorism? It’s a question some have asked since the Boston Marathon bombing and even before that. Do you really have to be sponsored by some formal foreign group before the label applies? I don’t think so.

I was just trying to get the dog a little exercise; I wasn’t looking for an argument. Yet somehow, the dog park, of all places, became the scene of a heated discussion about terrorists in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

A young woman who introduced herself as a law student was discussing the Boston situation with an older man who I know is a retired law enforcement officer. I could tell she was beginning to rile him as she talked about how it’s not fair to assume that the two brothers accused of building and planting the bombs that killed three and injured more than 150 people are guilty. She began to rile me, to be honest, when she tried to blame the media for people being so quick to judgment about them.

Personally, I think law enforcement did an incredible job in tracking clues to find the suspects, and I think that overall, the media did a good job of reminding the public that these men are suspects and alleged or accused bombers. The public is going to believe what it wants to believe, frankly, regardless of how many of those cautionary words we add to the scripts.

But then the conversation took a very odd turn when another dog owner referred to the brothers as “terrorists.” The law student immediately bristled at this.

“I don’t think you can call them terrorists,” she answered.
“You don’t think what they did was terrorism?” Law Enforcement guy said.
“I don’t think we can know that.” Student said. She looked at me: “Would you call them terrorists?”

With their presumption of innocence until proven guilty intact, I explained that there is such a thing as domestic terrorist. Being a “terrorist” does not automatically mean you are sponsored by some complex foreign underground group; frankly, if they had been sponsored by one, I doubt seriously that the suspects would have ever had the need to carjack someone. I also doubt seriously whether anyone who’d done the bombing and who had access to the kind of money a group like Al Qaeda has wouldn’t already have been out of the country by the time that shootout happened.

Sometimes, people do horrific things on their own, for their own reasons.

Law Student then asked, “What about the DC Sniper? Would you call him a terrorist?”

I told her that I’d unquestionably call him a terrorist. He had the DC area living in terror over a period of time as he carefully and slowly picked off his victims. When you put someone in that kind of terror, you are, by practical definition, a terrorist.

I acknowledged that when I think of the DC Sniper case, terrorism isn’t the first word that comes to mind. But if you ask me if I think his actions are terroristic, I don’t know how anyone could say they weren’t.

The question I didn’t answer, and I’m glad I wasn’t asked because I’m still not sure I know the answer, is this: Where do we draw the line in what is and isn’t “terrorism”?

Aren’t some serial killers, in some respects, “terrorists”? Isn’t anyone who preys on victims from whom he intentionally generates a certain level of terror also deserving of that level? People who ambush someone in a premeditated murder may not automatically qualify, since there may not even be a moment for their victims to know what’s happening.

What makes someone a true terrorist in your eyes?


  1. I don’t really care how it is defined but I wish people would be consistent.  What I don’t like is the seeming implication that terrorism does not apply equally to white people as it does to people of color, or that it applies to people of a certain faith, but not others, or that it applies more to the disenfranchised and not to states/governments committing the same or worse acts.

  2. For me, the definition comes from motivation. A terrorist usually has a cause, ideology, something external that exists outside of their individual person, which they are promoting. A serial killer, therefore, while perhaps generating “terror” in a neighbourhood, would not fit that description, if he was simply killing out of some pathological need. One way of looking at it is that if you remove the individual out of the equation, and yet the cause still remains, then he’s a terrorist. I don’t remember what the D.C. sniper’s reason was for his actions, but my vague recollection is that it wasn’t political or ideological, just mental illness. If that is the case, then I would not categorize him as a terrorist, regardless of the fear and “terror” he may have instilled in D.C. residents while he was active. The difference may seem semantic, but I think we need to continue to make the distinction.

  3. That’s a good question.  
    I think that I easily would use the term for the Boston Marathon Bombers but I’m not sure about the DC sniper.  While, undoubtedly, the people around DC were living in terror, I guess I this isn’t what I’d use as a determination. Somehow “serial killer” doesn’t seem to fit the DC sniper, either.
    I think in the case of a person who is going around killing a person (or two) at a time and this continues over a period of time, I’d call that killer a serial killer.  If it involves a one-time incident, especially if explosives were used, I’d call it terrorism.  
    There could be some overlapping there, of course, and I’ll admit I don’t have a cut and dried definition.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.