The other day a man, Wade Michael Page, now sketchily described as a neo-Nazi white supremacist, shot some followers of the Sikh religion at their Wisconsin Temple, a patently deplorable action regardless of the backstory of either the perp or the victims. Beneath the obvious, this has set off a semantic war with unknown ramifications.
At first, knowing nothing about the shooter, the authorities speculated it was an act of domestic terrorism. Then the ignorant diagnosis was downgraded to a “type” of terrorist attack. On today’s NPR news program, mention was made in passing that there was an ongoing investigation into whether this was an act of domestic terrorism. Aside from a spotty military career and a few drunken brushes with the law, we have learned only that Wade played with White Supremacist bands (a category of which I and doubtless many others were hitherto unaware).
What would flow from a conclusion that indeed this action falls under the “T word”? Why do we seem to have a compulsion to attach some extrinsic categorizing label onto what happened? It is logical to understand that the shooter was nuts just by reason of acting clearly outside of what our society accepts as human behavior; that societal definition also labels the shooter a criminal who can escape punishment only if he can prove a certain elusive and legally ill-defined supreme level of nutiness.
At first blush one might think this is just another incident of the human passion for categorizing events so as to create a better understanding of those events and the world as a whole; patterns are both mentally comforting and sometimes reveal trends or syndromes that, once identified, may require societal remediation.
A more cynical view is that people innately want to punish what they find abhorrent; it is a way to put that action in its place, to distance us from it, to put it into a category that we know we reject and thus to insulate us temporally and morally from that action and the mental set that drove it.
A recent New Yorker article discusses the capsizing of a pleasure yacht after a fireworks display in a fancy area of Long Island, which carried three young children to their deaths as they were trapped in a cabin below-decks. The reportage noted that the boat was raised and was the subject of intense local police and FBI investigation, reflecting a need to understand the tragedy and indeed see if some punishment was appropriate to such people as may be viewed as guilty of some transgression of law or attentiveness.
The drive to affix blame and punish it is also at work in the case of the Sikh shooting. The perp is quite dead; it is not likely that punishing him is worth considering. If we can find that the deceased killer was part of some conspiracy, some movement, some group representing the wrong kind of violence, then we can blame them, and try to punish them by law; perhaps silence or disband them, at least infiltrate and monitor them. Society wants to protect itself from groups that will harm that society. (This creates serious problems of balancing civil liberties, a different subject for a different time.)
One of the issues is that a single person can have bad ideas, can get these ideas from groups that espouse them, and can act fundamentally alone in the physical sense (if not the intellectual sense) and thus kill large numbers of Sikhs (or any other group) and there is no one to blame except either the ideas or the deranged killer (who is likely either then already dead or clearly nuts). An unsatisfactory conclusion.
Hence, we look for available conspirators. If this cohort does terrible things, they are semantically “terrorists.” Of course this word now carries heavy freight after 9-11; we know in our deepest part that terrorists are a thing unique, singularly deranged and to be stamped out. Would it not be nice to find that the Sikh shooter was part of a cohort we can label as terrorists and then treat them violently because that is how one must deal with terrorists in this terror-burdened world?
It is frightening to think about what next happens if someone with a police mind-set, after careful analysis of unclear definitional factors, declares at a major press conference that yes, indeed, the shooter of Sikhs committed an act of domestic terrorism. What do we do? Does this just give us comfort psychologically (yeah, they are terrorists, they are bad, they are not like me, they are sort of rare so I am likely safe) and we move on? Does this lead us to arrest or suppress those whose ideas, but not actions, he shared? Do we do that only if he had physical contact with these people? Do we do that if the only contact is that they shared ideas?
I wish the FBI and police would stop trying to classify this event as terrorism. I get a bad feeling that the classification will achieve nothing but some negative unintended consequence.