This morning on the radio, I heard the question raised as to whether the killings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin should be considered an act of “domestic terrorism.”
Sure, I said to myself. And that would have been that, except that I then proceeded to think about it, and changed my mind.
“Terrorism” has to have a political aim — a goal to be achieved by sowing terror within a population. (Such as, for instance, trying to cow Americans to the point that we withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia, which was Osama bin Laden’s motive.) Without that, it’s something else.
The Oklahoma City bombing pretty much (although not perfectly) fits the definition because the conspirators — and the existence of multiple conspirators lends credence to the political aspect — were trying to send a message in response to Waco and Ruby Ridge. I’m not entirely clear what policy goal they hoped to achieve, but the use of mass murder to send a political message seems pretty clear.
We’ve heard about how the Sikh temple killer was a white supremacist, which nudges us toward politics, but that only suggests that if he was going to kill somebody, it seems likely he’d strike at nonwhites. Which he did. But that still suggests irrational personal animus more than saying he had some policy goal in mind.
There are those who would call it a “hate crime.” Well, they can do so without me. I could see it as a crime motivated by hate (one supposes some strong emotion was involved, although perhaps not), but I don’t hold with having a special category of crime based in the attitudes of the perpetrator, beyond such basics as whether the crime was intentional. We punish actions in this country, not opinions.
Attorney General Eric Holder seems to have wanted to cover all bases today, calling it “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime.”
Of course, his goal is to offer succor to mourners on behalf of the community, which means saying anything and everything that might express the country’s horror. If he were acting as a prosecutor in the case, we would have every right to demand that he be more precise.
And that’s the thing here that makes the search for motives, for terminology that will place a name upon these horrific crimes and thereby place them in a box of understanding — there will be no trial, no public proces of discernment and administration of justice. The killer robbed the mourners of that by killing himself.
On “Tell Me More” this afternoon as I was coming back from lunch, I heard a discussion that contained some foolishness (something to the effect that if it had been a dark-skinned man shooting up a bunch of white people, that would be terrorism), but also some wisdom — the point was made that people reach for an explanation like “terrorism” (or, I would add, “hate crime”) rather than random act of evil because that suggests there’s something we can do about it going forward. A political movement with a violent agenda is something you can take action against, and prevent further such acts. But an individual act of madness, or personal evil — how do you ward that off?
What we know is that there were six acts of senseless, premeditated murder. Which is more, far more, than bad enough. And in terms of how empowered we feel to deal with it, more horrible than anything else.