05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Exploring What It Means to be a Terrorist

With the incident at the Washington, DC Pentagon Metro station last week we have two occasions in a few weeks of someone who was reported to be obsessively paranoid about the US Government taking his own and others' lives in a futile and misguided, if not to say insane, attempt to express his rage.

I have no doubt that the blogosphere and the print pundits will be very busy in weeks to come analyzing and parsing what all this means, and I don't feel any great need to add my theories to the mix. I do wonder about one thing, though. To my knowledge there has been no suggestion in media or government reports that these were acts of terrorism. In fact, in the Austin case and perhaps by the time this is published in the Pentagon case as well some commentators have gone to great length to argue that the acts were criminal in nature and were explicitly not terrorism. Why?

Richard Reid, the shoe (non) bomber and Umar Abdul Muttallab, the underpants (non) bomber were quickly and unquestioningly termed terrorists. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atta were inarguably terrorists, so why not these two individuals? What's different? All these men were arguably obsessed with hating the US government, all felt their acts were justified by some putative higher purpose, all were willing to die to express their point of view. So I ask again, what's different?

The only difference I can see that holds up in the light of factual analysis is that Joseph Stack and John Bedell are white Americans who espoused pet causes of the Right -- taxes, too much government, etc... So is it impossible for American white guys to be terrorists? Apparently not, because the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City bomber was clearly labeled an act of domestic terrorism and its perpetrator, Timothy Mc Veigh a terrorist. Similarly, John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" would be considered a terrorist, although he was born and raised in Marin County. So why not Stack and Bedell?

I don't have an answer (lest you are only staying with this to find out what it is), but do have some thoughts. Lindh, while American, converted to Islam and was living in Afghanistan as a jihadi. Mc Veigh's actions took place in 1995, well before we as a nation became sensitized to terrorism by the events of 9/11/2001. In that most trite of observations, after 9/11 everything changed -- right behind that for a trite observation is the accepted wisdom that, when it comes to another act of terrorism, "it's not a matter of 'if,' but "when." Is it implicit in that assertion that it refers only to terrorism from outside the US? If so, why? If not, then why are the Austin and Washington events not considered at least as much of a wake-up call as the failed attempts by Reid and Mutallab.

I think there is a kind of anger in this country that we have not seen before, or at least not for a very long time. We sat by and watched helplessly as the wars and GOP voodoo economics cost us a record budget surplus and ran up a record deficit, after stealing one election in the Supreme Court, Republicans won another by dirty tricks and lies (see "swiftboating") and this worked so well that the Right has apparently adopted it as their pet strategy, and apparently no one whose motivation matches the Right's pet causes is a terrorist.

Either we have a "war on terror" or we have a war against ideologies the Right doesn't like. If it's a war on terror, then we need to understand that any violence against innocent civilians that is intended to make a political statement is terror, no matter where it comes from. Perhaps it's time we devoted as much credence and vigilance to the "enemy within" as we do to the threat from outside. And by "the enemy within" I don't mean the very few who, like Stack and Bedell, and even McVeigh, get so lost in the labyrinths of their paranoia that they erupt. Rather I mean the mass of ordinary Americans who, like Howard Beale in "Network" are becoming fed up and unwilling to take it any more.

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