Chapel Hill tragedy reveals our warped understanding of terrorism


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

The murder of three Muslim students at Chapel Hill has forced us to once again face our cultural ideas about terrorism and Muslims.

Understandable questions arose following the murders. Why has the accused murderer Craig Hicks not been labelled a terrorist? If he were a Muslim and the victims non-Muslim, would the reporting and perception not be different?

Should accused murderer Craig Hicks be seen as terrorist? I do not really know at this point. Terrorism is difficult to define, but the FBI definition, which requires that an act must “appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” among other requirements, would be appropriate.

At this point, I am not sure we can say that he intended to intimidate the larger civilian population at Chapel Hill. This uncertainty does not makes the murders no less heinous, but is important in how we conceptualize what happened.

The larger, more important point this line of questioning raises is unfortunately valid. No honest, objective person can say that the reporting would not have been different had a Muslim been the one charged with the crime.

Terrorism and Islam are far too often equated in the minds of Americans. Thinking of all Muslims as terrorists is wrong, dangerous and counterproductive in our fight against the extremists who are truly a threat.

This is the problem with the idea of terrorism. As a December 2014 article in the Netherlands International Law Review pointed out, there is no “uniform and comprehensive definition of terrorism at the international level.”

Terrorism, with its lack of formal, international definition and high emotional impact, can be manipulated by those in power to create fear.

Definitions of terrorism are notoriously self-serving. Part of the reason there is no international definition is that nations were concerned about “the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination,” according to a 2002 brief written for the Australian parliament.

The terrorism label is useful for oppressive nations wishing to de-legitimize popular resistance and we still have not come to a firm conclusion on the terrorist versus freedom fighter issue.

Still, the idea of terrorism is a necessary one. There should be some word to describe the tactics of those ideologically motivated groups and individuals who commit violence with certain goals in mind. That type of action should be seen as its own particular brand of violence.

How exactly we deal with the idea appropriately is challenge. The number of competing interests and agendas of nations around the world makes it unlikely that a universal definition will gain acceptance.

Perhaps the best route is for the American people to start questioning the accuracy of how we perceive terrorism and the emotional effects of that word.

I hope the tragic incident in Chapel Hill and the way it defies our expectations of how these acts of violence happen can help us overcome some of our misguided ideas about terrorism.

Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.

STORY: Kevin Griffin, Opinion Writer