Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Colorado Springs Murders And Terrorism

The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood murders.  What is there to say about them that hasn't been said before?  That three parents, all with young children, were brutally killed?  That the murderer, with a fragile mind laced with violence, was able to get hold of an AK-47 style weapon and use it to snuff out two fathers and one mother, all presumably so that he could save fetuses from being dismembered and "baby parts" from being sold by Planned Parenthood (as the much-edited videos by David Daleiden argue)?  Who has responsibility* for these horrible deeds?  Does it matter if the final forms of the videos lied, if the murderer was influenced by them?  Does it matter that the murderer had access to weapons?

Does it matter if we call this terrorism or not?

Ever since the news about the Colorado Springs murders erupted  I have read about the term "terrorism" in this context.

What is the relationship between the Colorado Springs massacre and, say, the Paris massacre, other than the number of victims?  Why does one slaughter qualify as terrorism and the other one perhaps not?  Does the media treat white Christian or secular men who commit mass killings as the aberrant exceptions, the mentally ill, not even lone wolf terrorists, when similar crimes, if committed by Muslims,  are immediately labeled as terrorism whether of the lone-wolf type or not?  And when similar crimes are committed by black non-Muslim men in the US**, they are usually interpreted as just ordinary street-thuggery, nothing to do with mental fragility.

Is it the case that we don't use the word "terrorism" when the intended victims are women who seek abortions?  Or when the targets are Planned Parenthood sites, given the "controversial" nature of abortion in this country?  Does this mean that sometimes we are on the side of the "terrorists," sometimes not?  The old saw about one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter?  So many men there...

These and many similar questions were both asked and answered in my Twitter feed over the last few days and in articles from all sides of the US political field.  The answers could be predicted by the original political affiliations of the individuals doing the writing or speaking.

That I am listing several questions above doesn't mean that I wouldn't have opinions about the best way of answering them.  It is indeed true, in my not-so-humble opinion, that religion and race of someone suspected of mass murder do affect the average treatment of the crime in the US media.

Possible reasons are first sought deep inside the man's psyche (and in almost all cases it is a man) if the suspect is white, Christian or secular, whereas much vaster political or religious generalizations provide the starting-point if the suspect is not white and/or is Muslim.

At the same time, some mass murderers have no motive that makes any kind of sense, however bizarre, to outsiders.  They simply kill, as was the case with the Newtown massacre.

But surely those who have expressed a political motive (as is the case in Colorado Springs where the murdered is reported having said that there would be no more baby parts) should be taken seriously?  Yet I see incredibly careful attempts to comb through the suspect's path, to split hairs between his possible hatred of Obama and his possible hatred of abortions, all this to imply that we don't really know what motivated him to take out three lives.  The Paris killers were not put under the magnifying glass in similar fashion.***

Here's where you will get exasperated with me.  I'm going to do some hair-splitting myself.  The reason is simple:  To understand when something is terrorism, we need to define "terrorism" and everyone in the same conversation must use the same definition.  Without that starting point the debate becomes surreal and pointless.

Sadly, the definitions one can find by just Googling are many and pretty different from each other.  Some would cover any use of violence, even wars by duly elected governments, others would cover almost any kind of violence, as long as it's not by governments****.  But a possible working definition is this:

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.
Note the word "especially."  That leaves a large opening for subjective interpretations to squeeze into the debate, so I'd rather omit it.  On the other hand, to define "political purposes" gives the same sort of gaps.

Still, it's the stress on "to intimidate or coerce" (to intend to do that) which to me is the central aspect of terrorism.  It's as if the real victims of terrorists are not the people they kill (who are collateral damage) but those who watch the killing, imagine themselves to be in the line for future victims, and then adjust their lives to minimize that imagined or real risk.  That's when terrorists win.

So did Robert Lewis Dear, the alleged murderer in Colorado Springs, intend to intimidate and coerce the staff and patients at Planned Parenthood or to intimidate and coerce all future patients and future staff of similar organizations?

I don't quite know the answer to that question*****, and neither do I know how much ethical responsibility David Daleiden should carry for those three deaths.  But those are important questions to ponder.

The links in this post are not intended as reflecting what I think.  Rather, they are examples from various sources about the ongoing debate.

* You are going to get a chuckle or two from that link, because it offers a weird mirror image of the Muslims vs. terrorists debate.

** This does not apply to the media's treatment of terrorism in Africa, by the way.

*** This doesn't mean that no evidence of the past crimes of the suspected terrorists was presented, just that it played a very minor role in the overall coverage of the events.  It's also worth pointing out that the one female terrorist who died in the terrorist raid in Paris did get her motives extensively analyzed in the European media, along the lines "from a party girl to a jihadist."  But that's because she was female.

**** I'm not arguing that those kinds of wars are somehow better violence, just that if we expand the use of the term too much it will end up being meaningless.

***** I veer towards the side of seeing what he did as terrorism, combined with mental fragility and affected by the right-wing anti-Planned-Parenthood campaign.  But it's always possible that he saw himself as a revenging angel (or demon), not intending to affect those he didn't kill towards any particular direction.  And yes, that is really splitting the hairs.