As details emerge about Dallas gunman Micah Johnson's life before he went on a deadly rampage that left five police officers dead last week, a narrative has emerged: Johnson was no terrorist.
Alleged evidence points to a troubled man who had an affinity for black nationalist power, according to some experts, who have suggested Johnson’s violent actions could point to the extremist, fanatic behavior typically associated with terrorists.
But the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” have largely remained absent from discourse following the deadly shooting last Thursday.
According to law enforcement, Johnson was heavily researching black history and heritage; he reportedly “liked” and supported the New Black Panther Party and the African American Defense League on Facebook, both of which have been deemed as hate groups; he had enough bomb-making materials in his home to lead authorities to believe he was planning a larger attack; he was filled with rage over two recent fatal police shootings of black men.
However, authorities and the Obama administration have so far refused to call Johnson a “terrorist."
Terrorism, a Tricky Word
Words have multiple meanings, and their meanings are always in flux, said Robin Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Terrorism is a word that we as a society are currently struggling with,” Lakoff said in an interview with ABC News. “What do we want it to apply to today? How do recent events make us rethink how we want to use it? There is no single simple answer. Americans will have to duke it out over time.”
Despite the Dallas shooter’s apparent hatred of white people and his alleged ties to black-power groups, Lakoff doesn’t believe his behavior qualified as terrorism.
“I see Johnson's behavior as driven not by political scheming but out of some kind of individual, psychotic rage, not even necessarily having a plan, just needing to kill and settling on a convenient target,” she said.
In a tense standoff with police last week, Johnson claimed he was acting alone and was not affiliated with any specific group.
Terrorism’s most widely accepted definition is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. According to Lakoff, it’s also the intention of creating in a society a climate of fear, chaos, inaction and despair, leading ultimately to social and political disorganization.
“In the case of terrorism, the physical violent actions are not the point in themselves,” Lakoff said. “They are done for a deeper and more dangerous cause, and the actual victims themselves are merely peripheral damage, side effects.”
Lakoff said she believes the “terrorism label” is applied too often, and sometimes too hastily, including potentially for recent Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people last month in a popular gay nightclub. He called 911 during the rampage and claimed allegiance to ISIS.
Lakoff said she doesn’t believe Mateen’s actions necessarily fell within the strict definition of terrorism that did apply to the events of 9/11, or to the attacks in Paris or Brussels this past year.
“I just see some ambiguity,” Lakoff said.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, agreed, telling ABC News that to be designated as a terrorist, it depends largely on the motivations.
In Mateen’s case, Patel said, there was considerable debate over his motivations in committing his crime. If he was acting to support a group like ISIS or al-Qaeda, then his acts would qualify as terrorism. However, if he was a repressed gay man, as some reports have suggested, the story would be different.
“Of course, the question was moot since he wasn't alive to face charges,” Patel said.
In contrast, Patel brings up the case of Dylann Roof, a white male who last year allegedly shot and killed nine African-American members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in hopes of igniting a race war.
“Dylann Roof could not technically be charged with terrorism, even though he appears to have racist motives, because there was no link to a foreign terrorist group,” Patel said. “Of course, he was charged with 33 criminal acts, including hate crimes and firearm violations, for his killing spree in Charleston.”
But what defines terrorism and whether it applies to certain individuals is only half the issue, Patel said. The “broader issue,” Patel said, is what “public officials describe as terrorism.”
Violence Committed by Muslims, Always an Act of Terrorism?
There is a tendency to jump to the “terrorism label” when a Muslim commits an act of violence, an assumption that Muslims are “only motivated by some twisted interpretation of Islam rather than a host of personal and social factors,” according to Patel.
The result of applying the “terrorism label” so quickly has several negative consequences, Patel said.
“Because Muslim violence is described as part of a broader ideological frame, it both heightens the perception of the threat ‘Islam is waging a war against the West’ and makes it easier to place blame on all Muslims. In contrast, non-Muslim shooters are more often described as individuals with mental or social problems not part of some broader movement, although their beliefs too are often explored in the press,” she said.
Patel said it’s a tendency that can “allow us to dismiss someone like Dylann Roof as crazy and avoid uncomfortable questions about the extent of organized racism and far-right violence in our society or about our lax gun laws.”
It’s a label that isn’t really fair to Muslims, Lakoff said.
“I am afraid that a Muslim name makes it much easier for Americans to apply the label ‘terrorism’ to violent actions. But needless to say, Muslims are just like everyone else. They have all kinds of reasons for what they do. Terrorism is one; but we should try to remember that terrorism was not invented by Muslims,” Lakoff said. “We are much too likely to think of Muslims as prototypical ‘terrorists’ while homegrown Christian types who misbehave in analogous ways are just individuals not acting out of political motives. Wrong, of course.”
The solution to combating a hasty “terrorism label” is to actually get away from using the label, Patel said.
“In my view, the solution isn't to call more things terrorism, but to get away from the politics of that label. We should evaluate, and respond to threats based on actual attacks, capacity and seriousness of intent,” Patel said. “Not on perceptions about a particular religion or racial or ethnic group.”