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Domestic Terrorism: Implications of a Label

Disclaimer: I pose a number of open-ended questions throughout this post, but I have included my main discussion questions at the end.

In light of recent events, I think it is important we take the time to discuss the concept of domestic terrorism and the roles that race, religion, ethnocentrism and media coverage play in forming public perception. Domestic terrorism is defined separately from International terrorism, according to the FBI:

“‘Domestic terrorism’ means activities with the following three characteristics:

 1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;

2. Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” (

The ambiguity of this definition lies in the skillful use of the word “intended.” Intent can be incredibly hard to prove, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation on behalf of the FBI, the government, and the media. It leaves the incredibly popular “mental health” loophole available. But, that loophole only seems to apply white men who carry out mass shootings. When the media puts the focus on not knowing the intent is when they use race to fill in the story, as demonstrated by the responses to the attack at Planned Parenthood. Additionally, whether or not the assailants “intent” was to specifically influence government policy, the recent shootings have brought the topic of gun control to the forefront of debates that have major implications for future legislation. In that respect, should the intent really matter?

Hopefully at this point everyone is familiar with the shooting that occurred last Friday at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado in which three people were killed and nine were wounded.(Broomfield, Brown & Simon, 2015). The following is an alert from the New York Times that popped up on my phone on Tuesday: “Special Report: The suspect in the Colorado rampage was a recluse who longed for women, and mixed religion with rage.” (Faussett, 2015).They describe him as an outcast, of course we would not want to associate him with all Christians… he was just a random fanatic with an anger problem. I find it incredibly hard to believe that if Robert Lewis Dear was not white or christian, the media would be as hesitant to call it domestic terrorism. The media would hear “anti-government” and run with it.

What I find particularly fascinating is a news story published by the FBI on their website in September of 2009 titled Domestic Terrorism: In the Post 9/11 Era. Here is a short excerpt from the article:

“One particularly insidious concern that touches all forms of domestic extremism is the lone offender—a single individual driven to hateful attacks based on a particular set of beliefs without a larger group’s knowledge or support…We believe most domestic attacks are carried out by lone offenders to promote their own grievances and agendas.” (

Does this not describe Robert Lewis Dear? In 2009 the FBI openly acknowledged that lone offenders could not only be considered domestic extremism or terrorism but was a particularly insidious threat. Does this not include those who carry out these mass shootings and massacres? Even still, the majority of the american public would not acknowledge that threat of lone offenders could apply to races or religions besides white people or christians, the majority response to the refugee crisis makes that very clear. Here is what CNN had to say about the recent planned parenthood shooting: “Dear, 57, told them he has anti-abortion and anti-government views, but that doesn’t mean those opinions were his motive for allegedly shooting up the Colorado Springs clinic on Friday, the official said. It’s too early to tell, as investigators are still processing evidence” (Broomfield et. al, 2015).

As I’m writing this I am listening to live coverage on CNN about the massacre that occurred today. Fourteen people were killed today in San Bernadino, California when as many as three men and women opened fire at a center for people with disabilities. In the broadcast, one of the men on Anderson Coopers panel, (which included Art Roderick, a CNN law enforcement analyst; Lenny Depaul, a member of the US marshall fugitive task force for New jersey and New York; Chris Swecker, former assistant director for the FBI; and Harry Hauck, a former NYPD detective) said the following:

“I will say that we oughta get our terminology straight here, just because it happened domestically doesn’t make it domestic terrorism. 9/11 was an attack on US soil, so was World Trade Center one. If it is internationally inspired, if there is some international inspiration or facilitation that turns it in to international terrorism so I think have to keep an open mind…”

To which Anderson Cooper agreed. The only difference between the FBI definitions for international and domestic terrorism is the final characteristic, for something to be International terrorism it must “Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”( So even when we have a perpetrator from a recent shooting confirm his anti-government sentiments, it is too soon to tell if it can be considered domestic terrorism. But when there is an ongoing situation that we know was weaponized, calculated and fatal, we still cannot consider it domestic terrorism, but we should also keep in mind that international terrorism is a totally viable option. I’m really not sure I understand the logic there. Today, multiple men and women wearing tactical gear who were in possession of assault rifles, handguns and pipe bombs entered a building and opened fire on innocent people, very possibly people with disabilities. If that is not an act of terrorism, I don’t know what is.

Q1: Do you think the recent shootings/attacks should be considered domestic terrorism? Does it fit within the FBI’s definition? If not, should the FBI’s definition be more widely applied?

Q2: Are there benefits to not labeling these shootings as domestic terrorism?

Q3: What roles do religion and race play in the media coverage of attacks like these?

Q4: With one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shootings being a women, do you think gender will influence media coverage in the coming days?

Q5: Do you think domestic terrorism events instill as much fear in the american public as international terrorism?

Q6: We recently discussed some of the pros and cons of militarization of the police here in the US. If American media and society started to classify these attacks as domestic terrorist attacks, what sort of policy/legal implications would that have, if any?



Broomfield, B., Brown, P., & Simon, D. (2015, November 29). Source: Colorado shooting suspect spoke of ‘baby parts’ – Retrieved December 3, 2015, from

In the Post-9/11 Era. (2009, September 7). Retrieved December 3, 2015, from

Fausset, R. (2015, December 1). For Robert Dear, Religion and Rage Before Planned Parenthood Attack. Retrieved December 3, 2015, from

San Bernardino Live Coverage [Television series episode]. (2015, December 3). In 360 with Anderson Cooper. New York City: Anderson Cooper.