How Do We Characterize A Person As A Terrorist?

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How Do We Characterize A Person As A Terrorist?

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The recent bombing attempt in Times Square, in the middle of Manhattan, was a near miss for the United States.  (And certainly for Saturday evening theater goers in New York).  The bomb failed to discharge, an alert street vendor alerted police, a hastened search led to Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan.  He was captured on the tarmac of the airport – just moments before he was to depart for Dubai.  So here is the question – Was he a terrorist?  If so, what qualifies as an act of terror?  Does a person have to have their Terrorist Certificate of completion from a certified terrorist training school?

Last evening PBS broadcast their American Experience program.  The program last evening was about Dr. Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray – King’s assassin.  Was that an act of terror?  It depends on how we identify an act of terror.  For instance – is a violent act for political gain an act of terror.  If so, then James Earl Ray might qualify.  Certainly there were political ramifications from the murder of Dr. King.

James Earl Ray was a loner.  He was a loner in prison and a loner when free.  Ray had excaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri, the year before.  Ray was a news junkie, carrying a transistor radio in his luggage.  One evening he was watching the television news from a California motel and saw George Wallace, the former Alabama Governor and 1968 Presidential hopeful.  Wallace was running as an independent on a Segregationist platform.  James Earl Ray, a life time racist, was uncharacteristically captured by the moment and began working as a volunteer for Wallace.  He soon tired of this and left California for Atlanta, Georgia – Dr. King’s home town.  Ray bought a rifle, traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was to appear on behalf of the striking garbage workers.  Opportunity presented itself and Ray killed Dr. King.    Psychological profiles later suggested that Ray hoped to be seen as a hero among the segregationist movement.  Murder for political gain – is that terrorism?  Ray died in 1995 while incarcerated.

The next example is Timothy McVeigh – not much history need be given but we will recap.  McVeigh was a former Army soldier and served in combat.  He became convinced that the United States Government was acting in the spirit of totalitarianism, with the most striking evidence being the failed, or botched, raid of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas.   McVeigh, initially with the help of others, began planning an attack on America.  The others backed out when they realized McVeigh was serious.  McVeigh assembled a relatively sophisticated fertilizer explosive and blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – killing 169 people.   McVeigh, like James  Earl Ray, expected to be heralded as a hero by others in the anti-government movement.  McVeigh was convicted of murder and executed.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001.  Nineteen men, under the direction of Al Quaeda, boarded four commercial airplanes and flew them into buildings – killing nearly 3,000 people.  No one questioned whether this was an act of terrorism.

It seems the current failed Time Square bomber had contact with someone back in Pakistan.  Does that make any difference?  Does it make any difference that the bomb failed to explode?  No, and No.  Does it make any difference if a person is acting alone, as was James Earl Ray, or acting as a part of a group?  Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan come to mind as individuals hoping for recognition by their heinous crimes.

If the Times Square bomber wannabee is found to have acted alone – will he be considered a terrorist – or just another nut who cracked under the stress of life?

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