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Discussion Of Whether School Shooting Is A Form Of Terrorism

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How do you define terrorism? Although many people would define it differently and there is no universal definition of terrorism, we hear the word ‘terrorism’ being used almost every day in mass media and social media. The definition is vague and when a mass murder occurs, it is always difficult to determine whether it should be considered as a terror attack or not. The same difficulty arises when it comes to school shootings. School shootings are increasing in number and scale; according to Education Week’s School Shooting Tracker, there have been 24 incidents of school shootings in the US in 2018 alone and at least 35 people have died from the incidents (Decker & Blad, 2019). They are as tragic as terror attacks and as wrong as terrorism, they are not a form of terrorism as most of them do not carry political, ideological or religious motive. School shootings are rather results of gun violence by teenagers who are generally depressed, feel like failures and feel the need to revenge.

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The word ‘terrorism’ is overly used and abused today — some abuse it by calling anyone that disagrees with them terrorists; mass media use it to catch the public’s attention, and some even think Muslims and terrorists are synonyms. However, ‘terrorism’ is an emotionally charged word that also carries a negative connotation and should be used carefully and objectively. Under the U.S. Code, terrorism is defined as “acts dangerous to human life that … appear to be intended — to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” (18 U.S. Code § 2331). Although there is no universally agreed definition, it is generally accepted that in order for violence to be labeled as terrorism, it must use violence or threat of violence against innocent people to achieve the political, ideological or social cause. It must seek to intimidate the public and strike the fear of the public or people in authority that they could be the next and coerce them to different beliefs and ideologies.

School shootings are similar to terrorism in a sense that they both are immoral, wrong and illegitimate. They all target innocent people that have no direct responsibility for the consequences as victims of violence and often result in deaths of civilians. Murder is wrong and immoral therefore these two are both morally wrong. However, there are many other crimes such as homicide that share these common grounds as terrorism (morally wrong, violent and target innocent people) but is not considered as terrorist attacks.

So, what determines violent acts labeled as a terrorist attack? It is at the intention of the crime which school shooting does not fulfill the criteria. Terrorism is an intended act by terrorist groups or members of terrorist groups to gain publicity and attention by terrifying us. They seek to obtain power or authority by coercing civilians and threatening the government. Oftentimes, it is easy to infer terrorists’ motives without investigating them by looking at the main target and their demographics, place of attack and method used. For example, 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings resulted in at least 253 deaths of civilians by bombs that were set in Catholic churches on Easter. It is evident that this act was a terrorist attack with radical religious motives that precisely aimed in the killing of Catholic believers. However, in the majority cases of school shootings are mostly done without any particular political or religious goal to them. It is also hard to conclude the intention as schools tend to carry less symbolic values than places of worship.

A lot of the school massacre’s intentions remain unknown. Top three deadliest school shootings’ (including Virginia Tech shooting, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and University of Texas tower shooting) intentions are still in question as they all ended with the deaths of the perpetrators. Moreover, it is difficult to speculate that shooters had any ideological or religious motive behind the acts as they did not belong to any radical group. Though, shooters have commonalities in that they showed signs of depression, interest in violence or had gun fantasies. According to a research done by the U. S. Secret Service and the U. S. Department of Education that examined 37 school shooting incidents from 1974 to 2000, 78% of the shooters “exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts at some point prior to their attack and more than half of the attackers had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate (61 percent)”. “Over half of the attackers demonstrated some interest in violence, through movies, video games, books, and other media (59 percent)”. Moreover, their research concluded that the majority of shooters “had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures” and “felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack”. For more of the recent example, Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was known to have psychological problems which his parents had ignored to get treated for a while prior to the attack. Investigators found books that indicated that he was a mass murder enthusiast. Another current example is Nikolas Cruz, the perpetrator of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, he was obsessed with guns and killing animals. Why teenagers commit school shootings is still in question and it would be bigoted to blame all school shootings to mental illness, however, mental illness should not be ignored when it comes to gun violence. It seems that school shootings are results of untreated mental illness, unreported violent behaviours and possibly motivated by revenge against all. This sets school shooting apart from terrorism.

Critics may argue: how about lone-wolf school shooters? When it comes to lone-wolf shooters, it becomes hard to draw the line because lone-wolf shooters commit violence that was inspired and motivated by terrorist groups without actually belong to any particular group. For example, the Montreal Massacre was a case of school violence committed by a lone-wolf shooter, Marc Lépine. We can speculate his intention by the place that the attack occurred, perpetrator, method used and main targets. He himself was an extreme anti-feminist that accused women of ruining his life and he targeted mainly female students that attended the university that he did not get into. He exclusively shot female students by lining them up shouting that he hates feminists. It is definite that he had a radical ideology that motivated him to selectively commit violence against innocent women, therefore, this, in fact, was a form of terrorism although he did not belong to any terrorist group.

To conclude, school shootings are like terrorism in that they are violent acts against civilians therefore unlawful and immoral. However, most of the school shootings are not a form of terrorism as in order for them to be labeled as terrorism, it must have been intended to achieve the political or religious aim and seek to change policies in a radical way which researches and recent examples of school shootings show to be missing. However, this does not mean that school shootings should be treated less seriously than terrorism or that they are never a form of terrorism (some cases of school shootings can be a form of terrorism). More of a precise and universal definition of terrorism is necessary to better approach towards the solution and to prevent it from being overused and abused. 

09 March 2021

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