News emerged Wednesday afternoon about a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, with the New York Times reporting at least 14 dead. The attack comes less than a week after a man shot and killed three people at a Planned Parenthood health clinic the day after Thanksgiving, which itself came just a few short weeks after 130 people were killed in a coordinated set of attacks in Paris. Many column inches have been devoted to the question of terrorism, and when and why attacks are defined as such. The word terrorism is typically associated with violent acts carried out by individuals or small groups with political agendas. With the War on Terror largely being waged in the Middle East, the terrorists that have captured the attention of the public over the last 15 years have been foreign Muslims of one ideological stripe or another. In the wake of the Paris attacks, the word terrorist has been bandied about in reference to prospective Syrian refugees — never mind that they, too, are fleeing from terrorist threats in their homeland. The same moral outrage, public fear and political action should be directed toward all acts of violence, even in the names of political causes some Americans endorse. When it comes to terrorism, the means and intent are what matter, and we must apply the term equally.
Given the ever-changing definitions of what specifically constitutes terrorism in this country, the term certainly gets applied to many different acts of violence. In the wake of the Paris attacks, conservatives have warned against the influx of Syrian refugees to the country in fear of potential terrorists among them. Yet the concern regarding refugees as terrorists is almost entirely baseless. Out of the 745,000 refugees who have resettled in the United States since 9/11, only two have been arrested and charged with aiding terrorists. Meanwhile, two very real attacks — one on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado and one at a disability center in California — have not been labeled terrorism by many in the media. These were clear instances of violence that occurred in our own country, yet many in the media have chosen to broadcast frivolous fear about refugees rather than focus on tangible acts of violence.
Terrorism has often been used as the catch-all term for politicized violence designed to inspire fear and inflict harm on an ideological “other.” As soon as any one side can take control of the word terrorist, they get the opportunity to decide which forms of violence are designated as such and which are not. If the United States wages this name-calling war solely on foreigners or particular religious groups, we are only perpetuating our own politicized fear-mongering.
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