Of pigeons and terrorists

Quick… take a look at the picture of the birds at the top of this article. What type of birds are they? Did you say they were pigeons? Of course you did. That’s what pretty much everyone calls them. In reality, of course, they aren’t pigeons at all. They’re rock doves and they’re not even related to the now extinct passenger pigeon and other members of the true pigeon family. Now… do these pigeons look like terrorists to you? Okay, that question probably came a bit too far out of left field. We’ll return to it shortly, but this is a story of terrorism.

The most recent attack in London was perpetrated by someone who was later reported to have shouted something out the window of his van about killing Muslims and being willing to do it all over again. The fact that he took the van up off the curb in front of a mosque was a pretty good hint. But rather than settling in for the inevitable investigation to find out if he acted alone, was part of a network or had any other clues for law enforcement officials, some have taken it upon themselves to demand an answer as to why he’s not being called a terrorist. The New York Times is locked and loaded on this pressing question.

When a 48-year-old man rammed a van into a crowd near a London mosque on Monday morning, controversy quickly erupted over whether the attack would be treated as less significant than others because it was committed against Muslims but not by them.

Such debates have typically played out over whether anti-Muslim violence is labeled terrorism. Though Monday’s attack appears to fit scholarly and legal definitions for terrorism, past incidents have been called hate crimes or attributed to disturbed loners with far-right leanings but no real agenda.

Allow me to offer a tip of the hat to the Times for actually including some mostly useful definitions of terrorism which have been put forth in the past.

According to British law, an attack is deemed terrorism when it seeks “to influence the government” or “intimidate the public” with the aim of “advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.”

Louise Richardson, an Irish political scientist, has posed a similar definition: “Terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes.”

Islamist attacks often seem to meet this standard more easily.

If you want to go with the textbook definition of terrorism as an organized campaign of violence intended to influence government policy or intimidate the public, then not only is the motive in this latest attack harder to pin down, but it’s not very terroristy. Still, while all of this remains “alleged” for the time being in official terms, the reports are clearly lining up to show that this guy was looking to kill some Muslims in a very public, splashy way. If you’re going to imagine that he’s hoping to influence Parliament to offer hunting permits for people coming out of mosques I would suggest a long lie down in a dark room with a cold compress. We might give a bit more weight to the idea that he was looking to terrorize people or intimidate them. But yet again, he’s going after a select minority here and not “the entire public” so it’s a bit of a stretch. But I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate here and none of this is really the point.

Personally, I don’t care either way. If you prefer, we can go with the more general definition of any violent action designed to provoke fear and terror in people. In that case I would say this clearly fills the bill and you’re free to call this dangerous loon a terrorist if you wish. (Sorry about the “loon” thing but his family is saying that he’s seriously bonkers.) If proven guilty, he did something just as bad as any of the other, more easily recognizable terrorists and should be executed. (I assume the Brits just lock them up, but he should get the maximum.) Allow me to give you one more thing to consider while we’re on the subject, though.

Words frequently evolve and adapt through usage, increasingly so on a global scale these days. When we think of “terror” today it summons up images of organized networks which dispatch secretive warriors to kill and maim on a large scale. Failing that, they distribute information and promotional materials to “inspire” the deranged to specifically take up their banner (often literally when it comes to ISIS) and commit their massive crimes in the name of the cause. I would offer you another example besides Islamic extremism but I honestly can’t think of one which comes anywhere close in terms of scale.

So, yes… perhaps those of us taking the time to thumb through our pocket dictionary should be calling the latest London attacker a terrorist. I’m not going to fault you for it if you do. But please at least acknowledge that a couple of deranged, angry rednecks who end up murdering people in Muslim garb aren’t representative of a global movement. They don’t shout out slogans about how Great Jesus is and how He wants all the Muslims to die as they commit their evil deeds. It doesn’t fit the global “feeling” of what we think of when we hear the word terrorist. It’s sort of like the rock doves. That may be more proper according to ornithologists, but we all know what we mean when we say “pigeon.”