11/30/2009 10:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who's a Terrorist?

Republicans were quick to label the recent shooting at Ft. Hood a "terrorist attack" and Maj. Nadal Hasan a "terrorist". It drives them crazy that President Obama has kept us safe longer than George W. Bush, so they pounced on this as an equivalent terrorist attack. Was it? And, just what is a "terrorist"? I see four elements:
A) Violence, and the threat of more violence;
B) Political motive (not financial gain) seeking to change specific future political behavior;
C) The organized use of many people, across large geographic areas and a long time, and;
D) The willingness to target random, innocent civilians.

I suggest there are four categories of "terrorism" if broadly defined.

1) Street crime/muggings; home burglaries/invasions; stick-ups at banks and convenience stores are examples on one-on-one (or small group) crimes with single/small groups of actors seeking material goods in a single or repeated episodes. The object is material gain. There are no political statements made or political positions advanced and the victims are random civilians, chosen for their ability to pay. No change of future political conduct (by nations or peoples) is demanded. Yet, the effect is clearly terrorizing on the victims (having been there myself many times, I can attest to that) but is this "terrorism" as we use it in political discourse, or is it "crime"?

2) The "Son of Sam" shootings in New York in 1976-1977 and the "D.C. Sniper" shootings in Washington, D.C. in 2002 are examples of broader violence and threats of more violence - terrorizing a whole city - with, again, individual/small group actors; no apparent or announced political motives; the attacks are on random civilians, no years-long struggle is at issue and no material gain is sought or demanded. Certainly, New York and Washington, D.C. were "terrorized" in these cases, but is this "terrorism" as we mean it now?

3) Hesham Mohamed Hadayet opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport in July 2002, at the El Al ticket counter, killing three. The attack was on random civilians, by a lone gunman - with a political statement, not for material gain, but not linked with attacks in concert with others to change specific future political behavior. The June 2009 shooting of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. fits this same mold - a white supremacist making a political statement by attacking random civilians at a chosen political target. Again, there was no link to an organized group with long term demands for specific political changes by nations or peoples. Are these examples of "terrorism"?

4) Al Qaeda, the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades and others are different in that they use violence and the threat of violence against innocent victims, with political motives - but these groups are part of a multi-generational, well organized, ongoing effort, spread across large geographical areas, and designed to change specific future political behavior on a broad scale. These groups constantly seek new recruits; have demands for continuous funding and are "institutional" in that their leaders may change, but the organization - and its goals - persists. This makes for the "terrorism" we think of today.

What is common among the attackers in groups two (Son of Sam/D.C. Sniper) and three (El Al ticket counter/Holocaust Museum) is mental illness - there is a gloss of political motive/statement in group three, but these sole actors are, simply stated, deranged. Maj. Hasan and his actions at Ft. Hood fit into category three - a political motive appears to exist; he targeted random people; he did not seek material gain but he also did not appear to be linked to any large group, as part of an ongoing effort to change specific future political action.

However, the anti-abortion movement in the United States is a classic terrorist effort. Scott Roeder, the confessed killer of Dr. George Tiller, was part of an organized, institutional effort, across a long expanse of time and wide geography, to change specific political behavior and policy in the United States. Bombing abortion clinics targets random civilians and the threat of more violence persists. No extortion or monetary demands are made to stop the campaign - the object is not material gain. All the elements that we think of with Al Qaeda are present with the anti-abortion movement - they simply have different political agendas.

Parenthetically, the anti-abortion movement's claim to be "right to life" is false as they are not pacifists and do not oppose war or the death penalty, quite the opposite, they are supporters of violence and death, not life.

Therefore, Maj. Hasan is not a "terrorist" as we commonly use the term - he was a lone deranged gunman targeting random individuals with the gloss of a political motive or statement - a member of group three, and, unlike Al Qaeda, did not kill three thousand people in one attack.