Ta-Nehesi Coates writes:
All jokes aside, again, I think the problem here is defining terrorist
strictly as the work of "foreign attackers" is really dubious. Newsweek certainly had no problem identifying Bill Ayers as a "former terrorist" in its subhed back in 08. I'm not in their newsroom. But I'd be very interested to see whether they debated this.
The Weathermen were definitely terrorists. Just because they operated domestically doesn't make them any less terroristic. The IRA, the UDL, and the ETA are terrorist organizations that operate on home turf.
Terrorism is a tactic. It can be perpetrated by a group of people, or by a lone individual, at home or abroad. The essence of terrorism is using spectacular violence for psychological leverage in the service of ideology.
A terrorist attack is designed to spark fear out of all proportion to the person/group's operational capacity to inflict casualties, and therefore to give the terrorists disproportionate influence--either to coerce a population or a government directly, or to provoke their adversaries into an overreaction that will set off a backlash.
Terrorists hope to distort our perception of risk by committing memorable, dramatic, "telegenic" atrocities.
I can see some justification for reserving the term terrorist for those who are part of organized groups. If if an attack is obviously a suicide mission by a lone assailant, that kind of defeats the purpose of a terror attack. The attacker loses a lot of leverage by dying and thereby removing further credible threats.
On the other hand, not all terrorists are suicide bombers. Tim McVeigh was clearly a terrorist. He didn't team up with an organization to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City--but he had enough ties to the right-wing, anti-government movement to make us wonder. If he hadn't been caught, he probably would have committed more attacks. Years after McVeigh's execution, you still see Teabaggers showing up at rallies in "Tree of Liberty" t-shirts, an homage to McVeigh.
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, waged a 17-year terror campaign against scientists, mathematicians, lobbyists, and other symbols of technological society. Early in his career, he nearly brought down an American Airlines flight with a bomb in the cargo hold. At one point, Kaczynski wrote a letter to the New York Times falsely claiming to be part of a group called the FC, or the Freedom Club. Was Kaczynski really any less of a terrorist because he turned out to be the FC's only member?
The lone wolf vs. group divide is looking increasingly arbitrary the era of networked organizations and virtual social movements. Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan acted alone, but he saw himself as being part of a much larger project.
In an age of mass communication and media, even a suicide bomber can hope to kindle a chain reaction that will continue long after he's gone. IRS bomber Joe Stack hoped that his attack would inspire others to rise up against the government, and sure enough, within minutes of the crash online shrines were popping up all over the web.