By Jesse MacLean, M.A. in Global Governance, Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo.
2014 saw three high-profile public killings of police officers in North America with perpetrators evincing political motives. On June 4, Justin Bourque ambushed RCMP officers in a shooting in Moncton, New Brunswick, killing three and wounding two. Statements by the perpetrator indicated he was driven by a paranoid anti-government ideology and a desire to incite rebellion against Canada’s government. Authorities considered charging Bourque with terrorist offences, but decided to proceed with a different case for the prosecution.
Four days later on October 8, a married couple holding similar anti-government views shot two police officers dead in a Las Vegas pizza restaurant. Jerad and Amanda Miller draped the bodies in a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag and a swastika while proclaiming revolution. They then fled to a nearby Walmart, where they killed an armed civilian who attempted to intervene before ending their own lives.
Finally, on December 20 two NYPD officers were shot dead by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, who then took his own life. In a post on his Instagram account, Brinsley claimed the killings as revenge for the deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of American police. He had also shot his ex-girlfriend earlier in the day, but she survived her wounds.
The theatrical nature of these violent incidents, combined with their evident political intent and the targeting of civilian public servants, would seem to match conventional definitions of terrorism.
However, in all three cases government and mainstream media sources did not condemn the killings as acts of terrorism. This suggests interesting things about how and why the word ‘terrorism’ is used in today’s popular discourse. Four possible explanations are suggested: the ‘lone wolf’ nature of the perpetrators, the unclear nature of their motives and goals, the fact that they did not claim a stereotypical Islamist affiliation, and the fact that they targeted armed, uniformed police officers instead of defenceless civilians.
All three incidents were the work of ‘lone wolf’ killers, which is to say that they acted on their own initiative and were not members of an established militant organization. The ‘lone wolf’ term is a relatively recent entry into popular consciousness on terrorism, which may help explain why these incidents were not described as terror. Contrast for instance these three examples of people who successfully killed police officers with that of Zale Thompson in New York. On October 23rd, Thompson attacked and wounded NYPD officers with a hatchet before being shot dead. He *was* described as a terrorist based on his Islamic faith and his online links to organizations like ISIS.
The unclear nature of the killers’ motives is also a factor. Terrorism is theatre, meant to communicate the demands and grievances of the perpetrators using violence as a medium. When amateurs put on an ‘improv show’, the message can get jumbled. None of the perpetrators in these examples recorded a video statement or wrote a formal manifesto explaining what they were about to do and why. The Las Vegas shooters’ motives had to be pieced together after the fact from their online activities. Justin Bourque’s dream of rebellion was expressed to the officers interrogating him, not to YouTube. Brinsley had no actual links to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and the New York Times suspected his motive was more personal than political: a frustrated man making a violent play for attention. The fact that Brinsley had a history of mental illness and a previous suicide attempt may further cloud his intentions. Considering that terrorism is rarely if ever an act borne of impulse instead of premeditation, this strongly suggests that Brinsley was indeed *not* a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist and that his act is better viewed as a conventional crime.
Bluntly put, the perpetrators of these acts were not Muslims and were not motivated by an extremist Islamist ideology. Thus, they have received different treatment by authorities and the media than they might have if they committed the same acts under a different identity. Regrettably, the link in the popular imagination between ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’ in the post-9/11 world remains very strong. This post is not the first to comment on the different treatment given to Justin Bourque compared to Michael-Zehaf Bibeau, the gunman who carried out a less deadly but more shocking attack on Canada when he stormed Parliament and the National War Memorial on October 22, 2014. Similar questions were asked following the Las Vegas attack.
The fact that the targets of these attacks were police officers and soldiers instead of random civilians may also be a factor. Police forces occupy a zone between ‘armed forces’ and ‘ordinary citizens’, in that they are the paid, armed, and uniformed agents of state power, but do not hold the same powers or status as members of the armed forces. For those opposed to the state’s policies, they represent a hostile and oppressive force. To a certain degree, the police are expected to face violence and deadly peril in the execution of their duties. When it comes to acts of political violence, this may lead to a different perception of their deaths compared to the deaths of defenceless citizens.
What do these four possible explanations add up to? Perhaps nothing more than a reminder of how ambiguous the conceptual boundaries are that determine what violence is described as ‘terrorism.’ These boundaries are fuzzier than ever in the age of ‘lone wolves’, where a single disturbed or extremist individual can earn a label previously reserved for guerrilla armies and transnational networks. Deep thought is needed on the part of academics, policymakers and media figures on how best to describe incidents where police officers are publicly assassinated by killers who may demonstrate a political motive.