Why Aren't We Calling the Austin Bomber a Terrorist?

America has a terrorism problem. We don’t want to admit it.

No, not just a “gun violence” problem or “mental health” crisis. These issues absolutely do exist and can be contributing factors.  But they exist as parts of a larger overall problem; there’s a segment of our population determined to terrify the rest of us.

Radical ideologies have been cited as motivation behind such behavior. However, they aren’t the only ones. We’ve also seen revenge (Parkland), racism (Charleston), the pursuit of fame (Columbine) and, the most frightening, “just because”; where there’s no apparent reason at all. The latter seems to be the most common in the US; Newtown, Vegas, Sutherland Springs and now Austin. In all cases the strategies used by the perpetrators are not only strikingly similar to one another, but also to those who we traditionally refer to as terrorists. Yet we still refuse to connect the two.

Why?

The first answer that comes to mind is racism. We like our terrorists brown and our “troubled teens” white. We don’t want to admit that Timmy next door is just as capable of killing our children as Ahmed (who could also be next door). But racism is actually one of several unfortunate reasons we refuse to face the truth.

For one, there isn’t a singular definition of the word terrorism. Here are a few:

the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.
— FBI
the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion
— Webster's Dictionary
the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.
— Google

Different meanings open up the term to varying interpretations. They take us away from the simple fact that terrorism is the idea of causing terror; period. Other crimes can also cause terror – attempted murder, rape, armed robbery to name a few. However, those crimes (horrible as they may be) victimize, at most, a few people at a time. This makes them easy to ignore. An act of terror is harder to ignore; everyone is afraid.

If everyone is afraid because of a terrorist attack, it will mean that we failed since 9/11. After 17 years of war, domestic surveillance, extra-judicial executions and politicians claiming all of these keep us safe we’re back at square one; at least that would be the conclusion that many would come to. I’m not saying all efforts were in vain. I don’t believe that’s true. But recognizing that the virus grew a strain resistant to anti-biotics would definitely put things in perspective.

The new strain is immune to the government’s anti-terrorism efforts because it doesn’t start with ideological groups. It starts at home; your home, my home, our neighbors home. We have to look inward and ask ourselves difficult questions:

  • What are we, as parents, are teaching our children by our own example?
  • Are we involved enough in their lives to know if something is wrong?
  • Should they be allowed free access to our weapons (if you own them)?
  • If something is off, are there resources to help, or are we on our own?
  • What about our friends and neighbors, how are THEY doing? Can we offer assistance in a meaningful way?

To be fair, asking such questions is necessary no matter what you call the crime. But it becomes ever more imperative when looking at it through the lens of a national terror crisis. They are no longer a "good-to-have" written in the back of some self-help book. Our survival depends on addressing them. Maybe you aren’t involved enough in your kid’s life, maybe you know someone who is and doesn’t know how to handle their behavior, or maybe you know of a vulnerable kid who has no parental figure. Each of those situations (and others) can result in the next attack; you can help prevent it. That sort of honesty places responsibility not on government agencies, but parents, caregivers and neighbors. It’s a heavy burden not everyone can handle; myself included. So, we're left in a state of denial that we use to compartmentalize our tragedies for our own emotional preservation. 

We feel better when we convince ourselves that only the government can stop terrorism. We say they mostly happen in other countries, far away. But mass shootings and a bombing by a “troubled teen”? Those don’t count. We choose to see them as different, less frequent and someone else’s fault. This line of thinking gives everyone an out. We, as citizens, get to avoid responsibility for living in a country that has a serious terror problem. Our politicians can claim they keep us safe. We, in turn, feel secure. Everyone is happy. Perhaps we are, after all, choosing the better mentality. Ignorance is bliss.