Posted on 7/10/17

According to the FBI, the definition of terrorism is based on theCode of Federal Regulations, which defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Based on this definition, it can be determined whether an act falls under murder or terrorism charges. While mass murder and terrorism may look the same, the intention behind the act is determinative as to the act’s characterization.

Also note that the definition of mass murder, as opposed to murder, is when someone kills at least four people during the same incident without a significant lapse of time between the killings, according to the FBI. If the factors are not met, then the act is simply murder.

Mass Murder as a Tool for Terrorism

Mass murders often think of themselves as acting for a cause. For instance, the recent Washington, D.C. gunman, James Hodgkinson, opened fire on Representative Steve Scalise because he believed that, based on surrounding evidence, killing republicans is a way to destroy what he termed as evil. He was not acting indiscriminately; he was targeting a group that he considered to be a cancer. Does that mean that Hodgkinson committed an act of terror and not murder? Probably not.

As such, there is no official, hard rule that helps us distinguish between terrorism and mass murder. Instead, the two are distinguished based on the sight test. Moreover, terrorism usually has an ideology that is accepted by many and the act is accepted by many as justifiable. In the Hodgkinson case, while many may feel that republicans are destructive, it is not accepted by many that killing republicans is justified.

In contrast, there are many across the globe who consider the United States to be an enemy and justify the killing of Americans that is cause-based. Therefore, the 9/11 hijackers were terrorists and not simply murderers.

Pulse Murders

Last year,Omar Mateen entered a popular gay nightclub in Orlando with intent to kill. Once inside, he opened fire with an AR-15 automatic weapon. Through the firepower of the gun and the element of surprise, Mateen was able to kill 50 people and injure several more.

Mateen swore allegiance to ISIS and used an AR-15, a popular choice of weaponry amongst terrorists. Killing gay Americans is accepted by many across the world as a justifiable cause. Therefore, based on the sight test, it is clear that Mateen committed an act of terrorism.

Dylann Roof

The Dylann Roof case may be harder to grasp with respect to terrorism. Dylann Roof is a white supremacist who killed black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina just because they are black. Was that terrorism? There are many White Supremacists who accept violence against members of the African-American community as justifiable. Yet, it seems to be murder, not terrorism. Why?

Accused of a crime? Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified Texas criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Simeon Muller)


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