Robert A. Levine 12-9-15
Terrorism can be defined as an act that attempts to instill fear in a specific group or nation by purposefully killing or injuring a large number of people. Terrorist actions can be initiated by an organization and involve one or more individuals in structured operations, or can be perpetrated by single individuals inspired by particular organizations or occurring randomly. Access to explosives or materials to prepare explosives as well as access to guns and ammunition are necessary to perform significant terrorist acts.
A vehicle driven into a crowd of people can also kill and maim in a terrorist deed, but does not promote the same level of fear in the target community. Mass murder with a knife or sword is more difficult to achieve but can also be considered terrorism depending on the person’s motive. Suicide is considered worthwhile in Islamic terroristic actions if unbelievers or apostates are also killed in the actions and fear is sown in non-Muslims.
In most countries, obtaining the ingredients to make explosives is relatively simple, as these compounds have many industrial and agricultural uses. Recipes for making the explosives can be found on the Internet. Acquiring guns is more difficult except in the United States, where high powered assault weapons and capacious ammunition clips are readily available to virtually anyone. Only if the purchaser admits to a history of mental illness or a felony will the gun be withheld, but a straw buyer can obtain the weapon and sell it to whoever wants it.
Currently, religious ideology appears to be the main driving force behind terrorist acts, with radical Islamists affiliated with, or inspired by ISIS or Al Qaeda, the most frequent (and brutal) perpetrators. They were responsible for two major attacks in France this year (and several minor ones), the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt, bombings in Beirut and Baghdad, the massacre in San Bernadino, as well as multiple other events. This is in addition to the killings that have occurred in the territories they occupy in Syria and Iraq, and by comrades in Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and so forth.
Christian ideologues who are against abortion in the United States have also committed terrorist acts, the most recent being the killings in Colorado Springs. In addition, there have been a number of bombings of abortion clinics over the years and assassinations of doctors who perform abortions.
In the United States, the far right has also been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks, with neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-government activists taking lives and causing injuries because of their beliefs. The bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McViegh and Terry Nichols twenty years ago killed 168 people, and injured almost 700. Damage estimates exceeded $650 million, with over 300 nearby buildings also destroyed. In June 2015, a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, killed nine African-Americans in a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and white racists in Minneapolis shot five Black Lives Matter demonstrators at the end of November.
A study from the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy determined that there had been an average of 337 attacks annually by right-wing extremists in the decade after 9/11 in the United States, with a total of 254 fatalities. On the other hand, there was an average of six incidents yearly by Muslims directed against targets in America with a total of fifty deaths during the last thirteen and a half years. Other reports produce somewhat different numbers, but domestic terrorism events and fatalities from right-wing extremists always considerably exceed those by radical Islamists. Thus it appears that we have as much or more to fear from domestic terrorists as from radical Islamists (notwithstanding statements from Republican politicians).
Of course, these numbers pale in comparison to ordinary murders since 9/11 which tally well over 200,000. Yet Americans do not seem to be as concerned with murders which they appear to tolerate more easily than terrorism. (Perhaps they have become inured to the toll from murder given its frequency.)
Because of the ease of obtaining guns, individuals with mental illness can also act as terrorists and take multiple lives. They may be motivated by conspiracy theories, paranoia, bullying at school, workplace slights, grudges, and so forth. Unless they have been receiving treatment, there may be no warnings prior to their decompensation and thus even more difficulty in preventing their attacks.
Another type of terrorism which may not be labeled as such are the shootings and violence in urban areas fostered by street and drug gangs, where innocent bystanders often pay the price as the conflicts play out. Again, it is the lack of barriers to weapons’ access that allows this deadly terrorism to rack up its toll. Much of the black on black shootings that extinguish young lives is gang related, whether because of power struggles or fighting over drug territories.
The bottom line is that the availability of guns in the United States, particularly assault-style weapons and large ammunition clips that can be speed loaded, are responsible for the majority of terrorist fatalities and injuries. It makes no difference whether the perpetrators are right-wing extremists, radical Islamists, gang members, or individuals with mental illnesses. Their ability to easily obtain these weapons causes most of the injuries and deaths in terrorist incidents. Though surveys show that a majority of Americans would like to see more stringent gun laws and a ban on assault weapons, politicians on the right are not listening. The NRA and gun lobbyists have terrorized them into meek submission.
Photo by Shutterstock