“Paul Ciancia, the alleged gunman who paralyzed much of Los Angeles International Airport [LAX] in a Friday shooting spree, could have turned the nation’s third-busiest airport into a massive killing zone had it not been for the quick response by airport police,” officials told USA Today on Saturday.
Using an assault rifle, Ciancia allegedly shot and killed Gerardo I. Hernandez, 39, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer, and injured two more TSA officers and two civilians before he was stopped.
Ciancia was shot and injured by police and taken into custody. He has been charged, among other offenses, with killing a federal officer.
Based on available information, Ciancia’s alleged actions amount to a textbook case of “terrorism” according to the US government’s own definitions. But for some reason neither media nor officials are describing it that way.
It is instructive to look at how the US defines “terrorism” and compare the reaction to the LAX shooting to the aftermath of last April’s Boston Marathon bombing.
US definition of “terrorism”
As I’ve noted previously, the US government has no single definition of “terrorism” but the National Institute of Justice at the US Department of Justice points to two influential standards that are in use, one enshrined in law and the other provided by the FBI:
Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.
These definitions, it should also be noted, are carefully crafted to avoid including state violence as “terrorism” even when in every other respect, except the identity of its perpetrator, it fits the descriptions.
Ciancia’s alleged motive
Based on information released by officials, Ciancia’s intent was not in doubt. USA Today reports:
Investigators recovered a rambling note from the bag the shooter allegedly was carrying, which detailed an intent to “kill” TSA officers, said two federal law enforcement officials familiar with the message’s contents.
[FBI Special Agent David] Bowdich said the handwritten note made it clear that the suspect intended to kill “multiple” TSA employees and to “instill fear into their traitorous minds.”
The officials, who are not authorized to comment publicly, told USA TODAY that the note was written in a way that suggested the author expected to lose his life.
One of the officials described the incident as a suicide mission.
The Associated Press described the materials that were allegedly in Ciancia’s possession as “Patriot movement propaganda.”
There is no doubt Ciancia’s alleged actions clearly meet the government definition of “terrorism”: there is evidence of premeditation, a clear anti-government motivation and an intent to “instill fear.”
If any example of violence deserves to be treated as “terrorism” then it is hard to think of a more clear-cut example.
Is it “terrorism” yet?
And yet, neither major media nor public officials have, as far as I can determine, applied the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” to what happened at LAX.
While the incident received major news coverage, there has been no national panic on the scale that followed the 15 April Boston Marathon bombing.
Recall that after that attack, media and officials all rushed to declare the incident a “terrorist” attack.
President Barack Obama, after initially hesitating, described the Boston bombing as an “act of terrorism” the very next day even before the identities of the suspects were known.
With the “terrorism” panic in full force, the city of Boston was placed under an unprecedented curfew – effectively martial law – with thousands of police scouring the streets and invading people’s homes as the search for the suspects went on.
After 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured by police, Obama made a statement declaring: “We will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had. And we’ll continue to do whatever we have to do to keep our people safe.”
He followed up with a video address to the nation, declaring that “an act of terror wounded dozens and killed three people at the Boston Marathon.”
Members of Congress demanded publicly that the surviving Boston bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, be treated as an “enemy combatant.”
In fact officials of Obama’s Justice Department deprived Tsarnaev of his basic civil rights by questioning him for an extended period after he was taken into custody without reading him his Miranda rights. This violation met with broad public and elite approval.
After all, weren’t we dealing with “terrorism?”
Contrast this with Obama’s silence after the LAX shooting. There’s no statement about it on the White House website as of today.
Obama has kept a low profile, speaking to officials by telephone, but saying nothing publicly to reassure an alarmed nation of his resolve against “terrorism.”
What’s important to remember is that in the Boston case, unlike the LAX shooting, there was and is no clear evidence of a political motivation that would meet the government’s definitions of terrorism.
The only “evidence” was that Dzhokar and his older brother Tamerlan, killed during the manhunt, were of Chechen ancestry and Muslim background.
Despite massive efforts, the government has found no credible evidence that the Tsarnaevs were acting on behalf of any group.
(More than a month after the bombing an anonymous official source claimed – rather incredibly – that the heavily bleeding Dzhokar had scrawled a note on the side of the boat he was hiding in when he was captured, stating the attack had something to do with US occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Meanwhile, police have uncovered evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was involved in a triple homicide in 2011, suggesting a hardened criminal who did not kill from a political motivation.
Not if it’s a white guy…
By now it should be clear that there is a pattern: acts of spectacular violence, predominantly by white men, are rarely termed “terrorist” even when all the evidence points in that direction according to the government’s own standards.
The LAX shooting is not an isolated case. Recall that on 18 February 2010, Andrew Joseph Stack flew an aircraft into an Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas, in an apparent suicide mission.
Stack killed himself and an IRS worker, Vernon Hunter. And just like Ciancia allegedly did, Stack also left a note explaining his anti-government motivations.
Yet even as information about Stack emerged, the Obama White House and various public officials refused to label his suicide mission a “terrorist” attack.
The shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a US army veteran and white supremacist.
Blaming “mental illness”
Instead of the “terrorism” label, the media immediately begin to pursue a line of thought suggesting that the suspect (if white) is “mentally ill” or a “disturbed” loner.
This is already happening with Ciancia, whom The New York Times described today as “a troubled 23-year-old, with an assault rifle and an apparent grudge against the government.”
Ciancia, we are informed, attended a Catholic school, but there’s no speculation about what role religious education might have played in his alleged actions.
“Several family friends, neighbors and classmates described him as having been a reserved, quiet boy who, along with his younger brother, Taylor, seemed to be scarred by his mother’s long battle with multiple sclerosis and her death in 2009,” the Times reports.
It quotes a 21-year-old server in a local diner in the family’s New Jersey hometown claiming that the Ciancia brothers “had some depression issues, and they both got obsessive.” The Times does not explain what qualifications the server had to make such a clinical diagnosis.
Aside from stigmatizing mental illness, the absence of this knee-jerk reaction when Muslims are accused reflects a bizarre belief that only white people can be “disturbed” or “mentally ill.”
“Terrorist” as a racial term
Despite the government having fairly clear definitions of what constitutes an act of “terrorism,” the terms “terrorist” or “terrorism” are used not to describe actions but to label people.
It is clear these are racialized terms, applied in a discriminatory way to people perceived as Muslim, Arab or nonwhite. And as such they are terms that stigmatize entire groups of people and to justify the government’s increasingly unaccountable power.