After an outcry, Chief Manley clarified his position in a television interview on Thursday. He explained that his characterization of Mr. Conditt’s recording had been meant to be descriptive, not empathetic. “My opinion is that he created terror in our community by his actions and he stole lives from our community,” the chief said.
The way Mr. Conditt’s story has been handled by the police and the press has reignited the debate over who should be considered a terrorist. It is playing out against a backdrop of shootings and white supremacist rallies that have shaken the nation, and at a time when the country is questioning whether citizens of different races, religions and genders receive equal treatment under the law and in their communities.
The two people Mr. Conditt killed were black, but the police have said they have no reason to suspect that the attacks were racially motivated.
The law defines terrorism as violent, criminal acts that are intended to intimidate or coerce civilians and governments for an ideological, political or religious purpose.
Law enforcement officials called Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., and Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, terrorists. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-American people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C.; Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas, and Mr. Conditt were not.
Some legal experts say that the word “terrorism” is being applied too broadly today, both under the law and by people who want to emphasize the horror of the crime.
“After 9/11, the definition expanded and continues to lose its coherence and continuity,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University who has served as counsel in a number of national security and terrorism cases. The notion of terrorism “has almost become an exclamation point for criminal cases,” he said.
If someone like Mr. Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, is considered a terrorist, “then every serial killer in history would be a terrorist,” Mr. Turley said. “If everybody is a terrorist, then the actual crime loses its definition and meaning.” And ultimately, he said, there could be an expansion of the government’s power to investigate, as well as tougher sentencing.
The news media often wrestles with this issue as well. For the most part, journalists tend to follow the lead of law enforcement on whether to call a crime an act of terrorism. The New York Times called the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing an act of terror, but not the 2002 Washington-area sniper attacks.
Major news outlets did not label the Austin bombings as terrorism. The editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman disagreed with that decision. “There is no mistaking the fear these attacks inflicted on an entire city,” the board wrote. “That makes this terrorism.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has used the term “domestic terrorism” to describe some incidents, like the killing of Heather Heyer at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. But people cannot be charged with the federal crime of domestic terrorism as they can be charged with international terrorism.
This is one reason killers who support designated international terrorist groups are referred to as terrorists by law enforcement officials.
Mr. Mateen could be charged with terrorism after the Pulse nightclub shooting because he expressed support for the Islamic State. “The government pointed to the fact that he had made statements that suggested he was trying to advance the goals of a foreign terrorist organization,” said Faiza Patel, a director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
People found guilty of terrorism can receive tougher sentences.
Even though there are plenty of crimes with which killers can be charged, it is still important to treat domestic terrorism as the crime that it is, Mary McCord, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and a former national security official at the Justice Department, wrote after the Charlottesville rally.
“It is time that our federal criminal laws recognize domestic terrorism for what it is: the moral equivalent of international terrorism,” she wrote.
There is also a perceived bias against people who are not white or Christian when it comes to deciding on who is a terrorist, said Victor Asal, a professor and a director of the Project on Violent Conflict at the University of Albany who focuses on terrorists and insurgents. “The distinction between what is terrorism and what is not matters a whole heck of a lot,” he said. “We think of serial killers and terrorists in very different ways.”
“As a country, we need to be more aware that if you are killing people for a political or ideological purpose, regardless of what the perpetrator looks like, they have to be thought of as terrorists,” Professor Asal added.
This belief is one of the reasons the debate over how we define terrorism is so charged and brings up sensitive issues around race and religion.
There have been several instances where law enforcement and the media did not give nonwhite suspects — or even victims — the same consideration. Eddie S. Glaude, the chair of the center for African-American studies at Princeton, said those decisions became “markers in the culture that signal which people are valued more than others.”
By eschewing the word “terrorist” in favor of “troubled,” law enforcement made Mr. Conditt more empathetic, Professor Glaude said.
“If I describe this as an act of a person who has suffered, it orients the listener differently than if I say it’s the act of a terrorist or a madman,” Professor Glaude said. “The language we use carries a moral and ethical weight. It mobilizes passions. And it can cut short or activate empathy.”
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