Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Spatial Terrorism

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Spatial Terrorism

Article excerpt


Terrorism, under federal law, generally means an act of politically or socially motivated violence perpetrated against innocents. Terrorism within the meaning of federal law, in other words, exists only if a cognizable and particular motive is uncovered. This definition also sees the United States as an undifferentiated landscape; by its own terms, it fails to take into account any geographic nuance in acts of mass violence.

This Article suggests that spatial considerations are relevant in determining whether an act of mass violence constitutes an act of terrorism for purposes of federal law. It points to cities--which are characterized by a highly concentrated, fluid population, and which thus have more potential victims of indiscriminate violence--to demonstrate the propriety of considering space in an analysis of whether terrorism has occurred. It further argues that spatial dimensions lend support to shifting the definition of terrorism away from an exclusively instrumental, subjective intent model and towards a more comprehensive descriptive, objective action paradigm.

The existing terrorism scheme has generated confusion and unsatisfactory results. As incidents of mass violence continue to occur, the need for a coherent terrorism definition is particularly pressing and acute for prosecutors, judges, public officials, and a society attempting to conceptualize and categorize these incidents. Spatial considerations may provide greater consistency and clarity to the existing definitions of terrorism, further the underlying purposes of defining terrorism as an independent legal harm, and catalyze a recalibrated, proper definition of terrorism.


  I. Purposes of the "Terrorism" Classification
        A. Basic Meanings of the Term
        B. Terrorism as a Separate Category of Legal Harm
  II. Federal Terrorism Law
        A. Federal Definition of Terrorism
        B. Application of the Federal Definition to Recent
  III. A Spatial Model of Terrorism
        A. The Relevance of Space
        B. Space and Terrorism
  IV.  Clarifying Thoughts


In recent months, the people of the United States have witnessed and suffered several incidents of mass violence. The incidents--fresh in the hearts and minds of the people (1)--need no elaboration. Brief examples are therefore sufficient to provide the necessary factual background for this legal discussion.

On July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes tossed gas canisters into a movie theater crowd that had assembled for the premiere of a widely anticipated feature film, and then proceeded to open fire, killing twelve individuals) On August 5, 2012, Wade Michael Page entered the grounds of a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six worshippers and ultimately killing himself during a firefight with responding law enforcement officers. (3) On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty-seven individuals, including twenty children (none older than seven years old), at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, meeting the same self-inflicted fate as Page. (4) On April 14, 2013, twin bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring over 170 individuals. (5)

These incidents are unique in their respective factual circumstances. They are bound nonetheless by a common, self-evident truth: each was a horrific event in which numerous innocent lives (and only innocent lives) were targeted and violently eliminated. It is perhaps because of the heinous nature and scale of the incidents that public leaders at the highest levels and others have considered the incidents to be acts of terrorism. For example, speaking at a memorial service for the victims of the Oak Creek shooting, Attorney General Eric Holder stated, without equivocation, that "precisely what happened here [was] an act of terrorism. …

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