What Defines a Terrorist? Motive Matters.

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The attacks of Sept. 11th seared the chaos and violence of terrorism into Americans’ consciousness, rendering the term terrorism synonymous with the international jihadist movement. But it’s also frequently applied to acts of mass-casualty violence, like the recent lone gunman assault in Las Vegas, which misses the point that terrorism is a violent tactic with a political goal.

Terrorism is the creation of a psychological effect – terror – to create a political effect of changing the target’s actions. While attacks inspired and perpetrated by ISIS members and sympathizers in Manchester, London, San Bernardino and elsewhere are considered terrorism for their political motivations – namely to resist Western military presence in the Middle East and coerce withdrawal – the level of sheer violence might not meet that of the recent shooting in Las Vegas. But the amount of human harm caused, rather than a political motive behind the violence, is not the defining feature of terrorism.

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