A Short Vocabulary Lesson for Sen. Lieberman (With Some History Thrown In At No Extra Charge)

People who label Nidal Malik Hasan a "terrorist," like Joe Lieberman has done, literally don't understand the meaning of the word. How can they protect us from it if they don't even know what it is?
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People who label Nidal Malik Hasan a "terrorist," like Joe Lieberman just did, literally don't understand the meaning of the word. And how can they keep us safe from terrorism if they don't even know what it is?

Here's what Sen. Lieberman said: ""There are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act."

Here's a fairly concise definition of the word 'terrorism', drawn from the Random House Dictionary: "The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes." (emphasis mine)

Had Dr. Hasan become "an Islamist extremist"? It sure looks that way. But was the horrific slaughter he carried out intended to "intimidate or coerce" anyone? We've heard no evidence to that effect. These terrible killings may have just been an expression of inchoate rage. And if we don't know whether coercion or intimidation was the goal, than we certainly don't know if it was done "for political purposes."

Sen. Lieberman's statement, on the other hand, probably was made "for political purposes." And bigotry might be a factor, too, don't you think? After all, the Senator made no such statements about other shootings at military facilities.

Let's get one thing straight: This is not a liberal, knee-jerk defense of someone because he belongs to an unpopular minority (although defending unpopular minorities is generally a good practice). If we learn that Malik Hasan left a note saying "anybody who serves in the US Armed Forces must know they will face retribution," we'll know that he is a terrorist. He will have committed his murders in order to intimidate or coerce. But right now we don't have any evidence that suggests Hasan is any different than the civilian who killed 23 people at a cafeteria right down the road from Ft. Hood, shouting "This is what Central Texas did to me!"

Apparently that guy really hated Central Texas. But he wasn't a terrorist, because he wasn't trying to intimidate people or change their behavior.

So if the Luby's Cafeteria Murderer wasn't a terrorist, what does qualify as terrorism? Al Qaeda's dirty deeds do, of course. Those cowardly killings are intended to provoke US withdrawal from all Muslim countries. (No, they don't do it because "they hate our freedoms.") Christian extremist Scott Roeder's act of murder was terrorism, too, because he wants doctors to stop performing abortions. (He and others like him have nearly achieved their goal, too, which makes it pretty effective terror.)

The Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which killed 91 people in 1946, was also an indisputable act of terrorism, designed to intimidate occupying British personnel and encourage their withdrawal from Palestine. The Irgun's behavior provoked the World Zionist Congress to condemn "the shedding of innocent blood as a means of political warfare," much as mainstream Muslim groups have repeatedly condemned Al Qaeda.

And it's not just a God thing. Muslims, Christians, and Jews are not the only ones whose followers have engaged in terrorism. Forty years ago terrorists in Europe and the United States were likely to be non-believing members of leftist groups like the Red Brigades, Red Army Faction, or Weather Underground. Disbeliever Leon Frank Czolgosz shot President William McKinley, arguably an act of terrorism, because of his anarchist ideals. As Robert Pape's data analysis showed in Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, even suicide bombers are more likely to be driven by powerlessness than religion.

When James David Adkisson killed those Unitarians in Knoxville, he wasn't trying to change anybody's behavior. He was acting out his rage against liberals - a rage apparently fomented by viewing Fox News and reading books by Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. Adkisson and Hasan are similar figures, both of whom are guilty of horrific behavior (assuming Hasan's guilt and conviction, of course.) But neither are "terrorists" by any rational definition (based on what we know today.)

If we had applied Lieberman-like logic after the Knoxville shooting we would have started profiling anybody carrying a book by Hannity or O'Reilly. (I can hear some of you saying "Good idea!" Knock it off, guys - this is America.)

I believe in strong, clear-eyed work to combat terrorism. We also need an effective strategy for spotting soldiers that are about to snap and go on a killing spree. But they're not the same strategies. It's beginning to look like some serious warning signs were overlooked in the Hasan case. We need to find out what went wrong and fix it. But a tough antiterrorism policy begins with a hardnosed, non-ideological (and non-prejudiced) look at the facts. The Lieberman definition of terrorism would have us squander our investigative resources by pursuing a lot of Muslims rather than a lot of potential terrorists.

I don't mean to pick on Sen. Lieberman. It's a soul-killing waste of energy to resent any individual politician, as tempting as some of them may make it. But Lieberman's a good proxy for all the right-wingers who have called Hasan's terrible act "terrorism." (And we can drop the pretense that Lieberman is anything but a die-cut, straight-down-the-line rightist.)

I don't object to the Joe Liebermans of the world because they're conservative. I object to them because they don't know what the hell they're talking about. Their goal is indiscriminate military aggression toward the Muslim world, not effective security for the United States. They seem to believe that comments like these build a case for that agenda and prove that they can keep us safer than those now in power.

They're really proving the opposite. They're showing that they're still likely to act before they've gathered all the facts. Once again they've responded to tragedy with their patented blend of blind fear, misdirected anger, and cynical rhetoric. They're reminding us one more time how often they've failed and flailed in the face of danger. And they're demonstrating that they don't understand the real threat any more now than they did when they blundered into Iraq. Yet despite one embarrassing display after another, they keep claiming they know how to keep us safe from terrorism.


They don't know the meaning of the word.

UPDATE: A flock of rightwing trolls is attempting to "prove" that Lieberman was right and that Hasan is a terrorist, rather than a soldier who snapped. In so doing, they are consistently distorting my position - which is that we don't know which he was, and that strategies for soldiers who snap are not the same as strategies for terrorists. We need both, and we need to direct our resources where they're most needed.

Every definition of terrorism offered below includes the desire to intimidate or coerce, phrased in some way or form. Terrorist? Re Hasan, once again: We don't know. Wise military and police actions are based in finding the facts before we act, not reacting based on fear or political agendas. You're suggesting you know the facts of the case better than the military or the FBI. I'm sticking with the military and the FBI.

Lieberman's comments are intended to create a climate of fear for political purposes, not to provide better protection against violence. So are yours. Your agenda distracts us from effective war planning and policing. Each of you is helping me prove my point.

And here's an idea: Maybe everyone who claims they "know" the killer's motivation and have cracked this case - yes, it's terror, etc. - should show us their military or police ID. After all, they must be experts or they wouldn't be so sure, right?

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

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