The editors' question was specific to how the Department of Justice would interpret Robert Lewis Dear's assault and murders, but it mirrored the debate that springs up immediately after these events about what constitutes a terrorist act vs. other forms of violence. Terrorism is generally defined as a tactic using violence or the threat of violence to inspire fear in pursuit of a political goal.
The question raised by the editors points to the difficulty--and in their view the importance--of how we label incidents like this. Because of the prominence of Planned Parenthood as a political issue raised by Republicans over the past several months, people quickly looked to see how the Republican presidential candidates would respond to the question the editors raised. Mike Huckabee, a candidate with impeccable anti-abortion credentials who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, held down the straightforward, call-a-spade-a-spade, end of the spectrum when he declared that Dear's action was domestic terrorism. Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz hunkered down at the other end of the spectrum. Cruz took pains to suggest all manner of alternative explanations for why Dear did what he did--most remarkable of which was that Dear may be a transgendered leftist activist--in a strikingly defensive effort to deflect any culpability from his own anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol of the past few months. The queen of anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol, Carly Fiorina, launched a leftists-at-the-gates counter offensive.
Newspaper editors know better than most--their jobs are literally about parsing words and meaning after all--that terrorism is a highly subjective term. The use of the term terrorist today cannot be divorced from the language of the global war on terrorism (GWOT) declared by the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. One of the consequences of the GWOT is that it has provided a vocabulary that has come to be used by governments across the globe to label one's opponents in morally absolute terms, and in turn for sanctioning all manner of state action against them. Vladimir Putin rose quickly to our defense after the 9/11 attacks, as he saw in our determination to go to war half-way around the world under the banner of the GWOT a post-hoc justification for his own wars against Chechen separatists.
There are myriad other examples of how the language of terrorism has since been used. Bashir al-Assad used the language of terrorism in the early days of civil protests against his regime, as he quickly labeled real and manufactured events as the work of terrorists to justify the tenor of the regime's own violent assault against its own people. China has used the language of the GWOT to justify its suppression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Buddhists in Tibet. In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority has struggled for the linguistic upper hand, as each has labeled the other side as the terrorists. Terrorism is both a tactic utilized against a state or other more powerful adversary, and a propaganda tool, in the GWOT context, used by those in power for the labeling of their enemy and the justification for means used to defeat it.
Each of these circumstances suggests the subjective nature of the terrorist label. Terrorism is what we call what the other guys do--the bad guys. That suggests why Ted Cruz cannot allow the murders in Colorado to be labeled an act of terrorism. While Robert Lewis Dear may (or may not) have been inspired by Cruz's history of vitriolic attacks on the evils of Planned Parenthood, Ted Cruz does not view his own rhetoric as extreme. To Ted Cruz, the other guys are the extremists, while he is a strict constitutionalist advocating for what he believes would be the mainstream of American thought if America had not deviated from its founding principles.
When Ted Cruz advocated admitting Syrian Christian refugees into the United States, because "there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror," he was not denying that Christians--notably anti-abortion activists with a history of attacks on clinics providing abortion services--promoted or committed violent acts, but rather his words reflected the fact that terrorism is a subjective category that is inherently about what the other guys do. Cruz posits that Christians do not commit acts of terror because if Christians commit them as acts motivated by their faith, those acts might step over the line of what is legal--and should be condemned as such when they occur--but because their cause is grounded in principles that he shares, those acts would not constitute terrorism.
In the second Republican debate, Carly Fiorina offered the most passionate anti-abortion call to action among the candidates with her testimony regarding a video showing the vivisection of a live fetus--a video that it turned out does not exist in the form she suggested. Fiorina, more than any other candidate, should not have been surprised if it turns out that Robert Lewis Dear was inspired by her words. Abortion has long been an irresolvable chasm in our politics. A woman's right to chose and a fetus's status as a living being set those on each side on a seemingly irreconcilable collision course. If one believes that a fetus is from conception a life endowed with all of the rights of any human being, then what Fiorina claimed to have seen is an abomination that might well in the minds of extremists warrant the action that Robert Lewis Dear--like others before him--took to act against the slaughter of innocents. Instead of deflecting blame for the actions that her words might have incited, perhaps Fiorina should have been true to her convictions and stood with a man who by all appearances put his own life on the line in response to rhetoric similar to her words of passion.
If we are going to use the language of terrorism, we have to be careful to apply it consistently. We cannot apply different standards because a person is Christian or because they are white, as some felt the New York Times did in its description of Robert Lewis Dear as "a gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew." Given the current usage of the term, Dear should be labeled a terrorist if he did what he appears to have done. But we should not be surprised if doing so, in our current political landscape, turns out to be an unproductive step.
What Robert Lewis Dear did was terrifying and barbaric, and it is becoming increasingly clear that his actions were inspired by the anti-abortion meme. But it is not useful to label any crazy person who does horrific things a terrorist, however much the old definitions might fit. We have to be cognizant in this debate that the global war on terror changed everything, particularly the language of terrorism. Terrorism is no longer simply a word used to describe a political tactic, but has become a moral absolute, a designation of evil. It may be that the word has lost its salience for the application to events of "domestic terrorism" that lack an organized, systematic framework, and to which the anti-terrorism tools and tactics do not apply.
In his speech declaring the global war on terror, President George Bush assigned equal moral culpability to those who commit acts of terror and those who support them. Translated into our domestic landscape, this suggests that an acknowledgement by Carly Fiorina or Ted Cruz that their rhetoric may have inspired Dear's actions could imply culpability for a terrorist act. Even if that is exactly what their political antagonists would love to see, it would only take us farther down a slippery slope in a year when political rhetoric has already begun to test the limits of what a democracy can tolerate. Instead, we need to move in the opposite direction, and those who assign these labels might begin to consider language that reframes the issue in a way that allows people to confront the linkages between incendiary language in the public square and the violence that can ensue, without falling into the trap of debating who is a terrorist and who is not.