Experts Explore How To Define Terrorism Act

Among the many unanswered questions about this month's Fort Hood attack are: Was it an act of terrorism? Or an act of insanity? Most terrorism experts agree that the two aren't mutually exclusive, and that Fort Hood meets the legal standard of terrorism. Incidents like Fort Hood are forcing terrorism experts to refine what should count as a terrorist act.

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Now the facts in the Fort Hood shooting remain uncertain enough that people do not agree on what to call it. Some, but not all officials, call it an act of terrorism.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on what that word says about the threats we face.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: One point most people can agree on is that terrorism is a politically loaded word - so much so, that when Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked, the other day at the Pentagon, whether he thinks Fort Hood counts as a terrorist attack, he refused to touch the question.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I'm just not going to go there.

KELLY: Across town on Capitol Hill, members of Congress have been less reluctant to voice your views. Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman is one of several senators who have pronounced that Fort Hood�

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): �was a terrorist attack, the most destructive terrorist attack on America since September 11th, 2001.

KELLY: And at a Senate hearing on Fort Hood, President Bush's homeland security advisor, Francis Townsend, said it's an easy call.

Ms. FRANCIS TOWNSEND (Former Homeland Security Advisor to President Bush): When you look at the just basic English dictionary definition of terror, which is the use of violence to instill fear and intimidation, I think it's hard to imagine this wasn't an act of terror.

Mr. STEVEN SIMON (Council on Foreign Relations): You know, it was an attack that you can view in a number of different ways.

KELLY: That's Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says it's not such an easy call.

Mr. SIMON: You could see it as a mass killing along the lines of a Columbine or one of those incidents where the aggrieved employee returns to his company after being fired and kills a lot of people. That is to say the act of a person who just snaps.

KELLY: What makes Fort Hood so intriguing, Simon argues, is that it might have been both - an act of insanity and an act of terrorism. Part of what makes all this so tricky is there is no generally agreed-upon definitely of terrorism. Most experts say it involves violence or the threat of violence.

But remember we mentioned that basic dictionary definition, and in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary entry never explicitly uses the word violence. It describes terrorism as, quote, �a policy intended to strike with terror, those against whom it is adopted.� That's a definition broad enough to include most anything, including cyberterrorism - attacks on a computer system.

Other definitions narrow things a bit, but not everyone's on the same page. The National Counterterrorism Center, for example, stipulates that to count as terrorism, an act must be premeditated and against noncombatant targets. But the Pentagon definition does not specify any particular category of target.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): For me, an act of violence becomes an act of terrorism when it has some political motive.

KELLY: That's Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman, one of the preeminent terrorism experts in the U.S. Hoffman argues that violent events, even those with particular targets, aren't necessarily terrorism.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Either Columbine High School, for example, in the 1990s, or a couple of years ago at Virginia Tech, there was no political motive whatsoever. It was deeply personal and idiosyncratic in both cases.

KELLY: He says the Fort Hood attack was terrorism because it was intended to send a political message. Hoffman points to the alleged shooter, Major Nidal Hasan's contact with a radical cleric and the fact that the targets chosen were mostly military members about to deploy overseas.

But Hoffman concedes he might not have viewed Fort Hood as terrorism a decade or two ago. Back then, he believed there had to be some sort of chain of command; that a terror network had to be involved for an incident to rank as a terrorist attack. But Hoffman was forced to revisit that view, in light of the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bomber, and now his conviction that terrorist groups like al-Qaida have learned they don't need to finance or train would-be terrorists directly; instead, they can motivate them to commit terrorism on their own.

In that sense, Hoffman sees the Fort Hood attack as a prime example of one of the major trends in 21st century terrorism.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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