Gray Terrorism (by Chris Milburn)

Saturday, November 11th, 2017

Mass shootings persist within the walls of American institutions. In a country church in Texas, an individual killed 26 unsuspecting worshippers and wounded dozens more on a Sunday morning. In the aftermath of these mass killings, Americans seek ways to make sense of the seemingly senseless violence in hopes of preventing more bloodshed in the future.

Whether the shooter is branded a domestic terrorist, a violent extremist, a lone wolf, a gunman, or a terrorist, the emergence and persistence of mass shootings present significant challenges for analysts and law enforcement professionals. Security analysts and law enforcement require the analytical tools to assess and categorize such events in hopes of preventing or minimizing future incidents. But as mass violence has become a part of the social vocabulary of the age, violence against large groups of innocent civilians has increasingly been used by individuals who do not meet the traditional criteria to be accurately deemed “terrorists.”

Renowned terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman devotes a chapter to the work of defining terrorism in his recently released Third Edition of Inside Terrorism. After a rigorous discussion of both the specific nature of terrorism and its distinction from other types of violence, he arrives at the following description of terrorism:

We may therefore now attempt to define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider “target audience” that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, and entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general. Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence, and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.

Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman

Hoffman’s precise and thorough discussion provides enough detail for analysts to approach terrorism specifically as politically motivated violence directed toward representatives of another group with the intent of producing “far-reaching psychological effects.” Each of the elements of the definition is as important as the others when considering applying the label of “terrorism” to an act of violence – violence must meet each of these specific criteria in order for the label to be properly applied. In general, the absence of any one of these qualities would indicate that a different type of violence has occurred. However, incidents of mass violence in the U.S. increasingly bear specific resemblances to terrorism without meeting each of these criteria.

The two most recent examples of this type of mass violence are the extremely deadly Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings. Both incidents share common characteristics that are important enough to warrant examination by analysts: both shooters selected highly symbolic target populations, while neither shooter provided any immediately identifiable political or social motive to accompany their violence. (Notably, both shooters had also exhibited significant histories of domestic violence, and details are emerging that the Sutherland Springs shooter was driven by personal, domestic motivations.) So while these incidents do not fit a precise definition of terrorism by lacking the explicit motive “to effect political change on either a local or an international scale,” they do utilize certain symbolic elements while causing mass deaths, contributing significantly to security concerns of Americans.

As these incidents persist, Americans tend to seek “black and white” categorizations of terrorism with clear explanations. But the emergence of this type of incident – in the “gray area” between domestic murder and terrorist mass murder – presents security and safety professionals with some analytical challenges. Perhaps security practitioners would benefit from discussing this type of violence as “gray terrorism:” mass killings that do not fit squarely within the definition of terrorism, but bear many important similarities to terrorism. This violence is carried out in highly symbolic venues by individuals seeking to assert a sense of violent power intended to produce psychological effects similar to those of terrorism, but with no clear political, religious, or societal motivation. The motivation in this type of mass violence is typically intensely personal in some way, making it distinct from true terrorism.

While they are different from terrorism, these incidents do affect the national discourse in similar ways to terrorist acts. As highly symbolic, heavily publicized acts of violence, they instill fear in groups of innocent civilians, inflame political tensions, and contribute to an overall sense of vulnerability. The symbolic nature of a mass killing in a small town church, a country music concert, or a public school cannot be overlooked when attempting to analyze these mass murders. This notable symbolism moves this violence closer to the realm of terrorism while not fully meeting the well-established criteria to meet the definition.

Hoffman’s description rightly remains the definitive understanding of terrorism. But applying the term “gray terrorism” to such acts would allow analysts to consider the full symbolic importance of the terrorist tactic of targeting innocent civilians in public even when the motivation appears to be personal. Acknowledging that American mass violence is increasingly similar to terrorism – in strategy, tactics, and scope – may assist security practitioners in applying accurate analytical frameworks to the increasingly deadly symbolic mass killings in public places in America.