The Presidents Who Won’t Cry Terrorism: The costs and benefits of not labeling white supremacist attacks acts of terrorism

by Polina Beliakova

The August events in Charlottesville put the current U.S. government to the test of matching words to images. A deadly car-ramming perpetrated by a young white supremacist against the opponents of a torch-bearing rally, involving Nazi symbols and the chanting of anti-Semitic and racist slogans, killed one and wounded 35 people. President Donald J. Trump’s ambiguous rhetoric in response to these events made the recurring question of the definition of terrorism relevant again: Why do high government officials label some violent events acts of domestic terrorism while labeling other attacks that could have easily passed a duck-test (“does it look like a duck”) differently? Focusing on the individual motivations of specific presidents does not provide sufficient explanation for this phenomenon. Moreover, such an approach would obscure broader perspectives on the costs and benefits entailed by the abstention of high governmental officials from the use of the terrorism moniker with regard to domestic attacks perpetrated by white supremacists.

Examining Popular Explanations

To better understand the implications of the choice of terms, let’s first examine some popular justifications for the nonuse of the terrorist label and address their advantages and limitations. For instance, one line of reasoning assumes that high government officials abstain from the use of the terrorist label when an attack is committed by a representative of the ruling party’s support base. The Charlottesville events would seem to fit this pattern. Plausible though it might seem, however, a thorough analysis of former President Barack Obama’s reactions to the major domestic attacks committed during his term reveals that this explanation is not sufficient. In particular, when reacting to the white supremacist shooting attacks on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek (six killed, four injured) and the Charleston shooting at an African Methodist Church (nine killed, one injured), Obama did not use the term terrorism, and was also not very specific in identifying the cause of the attacks. In contrast, he did use the label of terrorism in his early reactions to the Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino attack, and Orlando shooting. Of course, the perpetrators’ reliance on the signature terrorist tactic of bombing in two out of three cases, their connection to known terrorist groups, and the targeting of a general civilian population left little choice in wording. Nevertheless, the question remains: why did Obama not use the terrorist label when commenting on the attacks in Oak Creek and Charleston that could easily fit the terrorism definition? There is no need to demonstrate further that the support base argument does not provide a plausible answer in these cases.

Another explanation that needs to be examined is legal: it is harder to convict someone on terrorist charges since it requires proving the intent of the attacker. Therefore, the president’s use of the terrorist label can complicate the legal process. This is probably what Trump suggested in his response to a journalist’s question about the nature of the Charlottesville attack: “You can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want, I would call it the fastest one to come up with a good verdict.” It is no surprise, then, that Obama could immediately use the terrorist moniker in his initial responses to San Bernardino and Orlando – the perpetrators of both attacks were shot dead at the scene. However, the white supremacist attacker of the Sikh temple in Oak Creek also died in the course of the attack. Thus, the legalistic argument, even if might be applicable in certain cases, also has a limited explanatory power.

Looking for a Comprehensive Framework

Focusing on the individual motivations of a given president in any particular case provides only a limited perspective on the costs and benefits associated with labeling an attack. To find the basis for a more comprehensive analysis, let’s consider systemic factors that could shed light on how the term of terrorism is defined and applied in real life. According to the U.S. Criminal Code definition, a domestic terrorism attack has to “appear to be intended” to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population”; to influence governmental policy by intimidation or coercion; “or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” This definition offers a useful framework for understanding the implications of avoiding the terrorism label when it comes to white supremacist attacks. In particular, treating white supremacist attacks as beyond the scope of this definition bears the risk of implying one of the following: First, that groups attacked by white supremacists are not representative enough to be considered the civilian population at large; and second, that white supremacy is not perceived as targeting government policies and conduct but only the specific communities it is aimed at. In other words, there are two sides, and the government while being more or less sympathetic to each of them, is to be found on neither. Thus, by not using the terrorist label, the government withdraws itself from the strategic equation of the attack and presents itself instead as an observer than a target. The costs and benefits of the government’s withdrawal have to be evaluated in relation to the strategic logic of terrorism.

Estimating Costs and Benefits

In basic terms, a successful terrorist attack targets what is dear to the government and would expose the vulnerability of the state, undermining the credibility of an authority that is incapable of protecting its citizens. On the terrorists’ side, such an attack would demonstrate the capability of the perpetrator to engage a more powerful adversary and could elevate the significance of the political cause behind the attack. An attack, in turn, might potentially alienate the moderate supporters of the terrorists’ cause while galvanizing the most radical and devoted, strengthening the movement. Government countermeasures would further contribute to the gravity of the event. Therefore, avoiding the terrorist label allows high government officials to relegate the significance of a violent event to the level of communal violence. Doing so denies the violent movement the benefits associated with committing a successful terrorist attack, in particular, elevating the significance of their cause to the national level. It also allows the government to conceal its vulnerability. On the other hand, refraining from calling deadly white supremacist attacks acts of terrorism also communicates that the targeted communities are not representative of the general American population. Obama’s choice of rhetoric illustrates this point: when reacting to the Oak Creek shooting he called Sikhs “a part of our broader American family;” when responding to the Charleston shooting he said: “communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times.” Unfortunately, victims of the white supremacists often can be described as members of the “broader American family” or “communities like this.” Paradoxically, this language can produce precisely that which the nonuse of the terrorist moniker originally intended to prevent – the undermining of the credibility of the government and the reduction of public support. Extensive criticism of Obama’s reactions to the domestic attacks discussed previously demonstrate this problem.

Back to Charlottesville

The above discussion of the costs and benefits of the nonuse of the terrorism label also applies to Trump’s ambivalent response to the events in Virginia. However, some critical reservations have to be made. Most importantly, in the Charlottesville case, the magnitude of the attack cannot be reduced to the communal level for two reasons. First, unlike previous acts of sporadic violence, the Charlottesville attack occurred in a context of intensified political dispute over the Confederate legacy that has a nation-wide significance. Second, the attack was committed against a random civilian audience, so the communal violence card cannot be played this time. When tallying benefits, it can be argued that Trump’s nonuse of the terrorism label prevented certain legal complications and denied the white nationalist movement some strategic advantages. Nevertheless, his delayed and ambiguous response, including his “blame on both sides” rhetoric also entailed severe costs for the government. Specifically, it created a vacuum which allowed both sides to develop their own interpretations of the event, which range from the conclusion that the government is weak and incompetent, to the opposite conclusion that it tacitly supports the movement from which Trump has tried to distance himself since the latter stages of the election campaign.

To summarize, applying a broader framework of analysis to evaluating the costs and benefits of not labeling white supremacist attacks as terrorism allows us to observe the implications that go beyond the individual intent of a given president in each particular case. The specific instance of Trump’s ambiguous rhetoric in the Charlottesville case demonstrates how a lack of awareness of these implications can potentially weaken support for the government and bolster a violent movement, turning the logic of the nonuse of the terrorism label on its head.

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