Last week, Joseph Stack flew an airplane into an IRS building, killing himself. Stack left behind a suicide note in which he outlined the reasons for his attack: political grievances against the United States government. After the attack, many news outlets hesitated to refer to Stack’s attack as “terrorism” and instead called it a “criminal act.” Even the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying that Stack’s attack was not a terrorist act.
While this distinction may not seem important to some, labels of acts now carry serious consequences from racial profiling on airline flights to all-out war. An obvious example of this is the War on Terror that resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When one compares the Stack story to other events, it appears that when a violent act is committed by a Muslim, there is no hesitancy to label it as terrorism, no matter what the circumstances. In light of Stack’s attack many are asking this question: when do we call an act of violence terrorism?
Nidal Hassan’s rampage at Fort Hood was labeled a terrorist act, as were actions by Iraqis who feel that they are defending their country against an invading force or Palestinians voicing legitimate grievances. In other words, there is a double standard with how the label is employed so it seems to be more about the identity of the individual rather than the act. The Council on American-Islamic Relations this past week called on media outlets to label Stack’s attack as terrorism because it fits the common definition that many use for that term: a politically motivated attack on civilians.
It is a valid point to be concerned with how labels are used. I know that I have been frustrated many times with how terrorism is easily applied to all acts of violence perpetrated by a Muslim, while there seems to be reluctance to do the same with others. I would argue that this is the reason that many people associate violence and terrorism exclusively with Muslims even though terrorism violates the core principles of Islam. In fact, most Muslims do not condone nor carry out any acts of violence and there are non-Muslims who do act violently. Again this would not be so important if the term “terrorism” did not carry so many consequences in the actions of governments. That is why we need to be more conscious and careful of our use of labels.
How do you think Joseph Stack’s attack should be labeled? Does it matter what we call it? Do labels have consequences? Please leave your comments below.