Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Chattanooga to San Bernardino: Has Our Idea of Terrorism Changed?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Chattanooga to San Bernardino: Has Our Idea of Terrorism Changed?

Article excerpt

Though it took only two days for US authorities to use the word "terrorism" in connection to the Dec. 2 attack that left 14 dead in San Bernardino, Calif., they have continued to avoid using the same wording around the killing of five military personnel in Chattanooga, Tenn. - five months after the event took place.

The difference in the government's handling of the two events, some say, reflects a growing national debate over what the face of terrorism looks like in the United States and abroad. It also suggests a shift in how America and the world view terrorists amid increasingly visible acts of extremism - in particular the massacres in Paris on Nov. 13.

"What has changed is US and world perception about terrorists and how the US is combating terrorism," said former federal prosecutor David S. Weinstein. "That national pulse about terrorism is high."

Just minutes after he said the July 16 shooting at Chattanooga was being investigated as an act of terrorism, then-US Attorney Bill Killian backtracked to say authorities had yet to determine whether the crime was terrorism or something else. Since then, the closest federal authorities have come to labeling Chattanooga a terror attack was when President Obama gave a speech addressing the nation after San Bernardino.

Yet in the days following the California massacre, the FBI called the married couple behind the attack "radicalized" terrorists with Islamic extremist views.

In some ways, the problem stems from the complex definition of "terrorism." Civilians and government officials alike use the term to describe many killings fueled by politics or religion. But terrorism is also a federal crime - a violent act that is "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct."

"Terrorism is always a politically loaded word," said Michael German, a former FBI agent who investigated white supremacist groups while undercover, to Voice of America. "It's very important that there's consistency with that across the various ideologies because otherwise it looks discriminatory, that violence by minorities is treated more seriously than violence against minorities. …

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