When the head of BBC Arabic, Tarik Kafala, said that the term "terrorist" was too "loaded" to apply to the deadly Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, he made a controversial point. He explained that is "enough" to describe what happened in the attack, "we know what that means, we know what it is," he said.
It's worth considering in the context of the shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Wednesday. White gunman Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with the crime, and the question of whether to apply the terrorist label has come up again. The shooting has not been deemed a terror attack or a hate crime by the authorities, and Chapel Hill police have said the shooting may have resulted from a dispute over a parking space. But as the victims' families and a multitude of voices from the Muslim community and beyond assert that this was a hate crime, many argue it was a terror attack, too.
These are indeed "loaded" terms; but these are loaded times, and loaded acts should be labeled as such. Perhaps Kafala's point holds here: is it enough to say that a white middle-aged gunman, who had expressed anti-religious views online, and had been described previously by one of the victims as a 'hateful' neighbor, shot a young married couple and their sister, all Muslims, in the head. The description alone carries the stench of discrimination and ideological hate.
We might credit the authorities with simply being careful not to categorize the crime before more information on Hicks' motive is available. Pundits, however, seasoned in labeling events as hate crimes or terror before any official determination, appear to have been more cautious following the murder of these Muslims. And if the authorities do not seriously investigate the possibility of racial hatred, and remain content with the parking dispute narrative, it will be nothing shot of a disgrace. Even though the events directly preceding the shooting related to a parking spot dispute, it doesn't mean this wasn't a hate crime.
Whatever conclusions are made about Hicks' motives, one fact is already indisputable: the Muslim community, including the victims and their families, are so accustomed to discrimination — including previous hateful treatment from Hicks — that reading such religious and racial hatred into the killings was immediate and inescapable.
Before the lives of newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Yusor's sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were brutally cut short, Muslims were already victims. That's what happens when an entire religious and racial minority are tarred as potential terrorists for over a decade.
But from a legalistic standpoint, the application of "terrorist" presents a particular and often overlooked conundrum. Every terrorist act is already a crime; murder, for example, or mass murder is not more murder in the context of a terror attack, and never more devastating when labeled as terrorism. To categorize something as "terrorism" means bringing ideological considerations to the crime, too. We might say that terrorism is crime plus ideology, but that's not quite right, since many ideology-drenched criminal acts don't get deemed terrorism. More accurately, we might say that terrorism is crime committed by actors singled out by the state as ideological enemies.
We are right to wonder whether such a label might apply to Hicks. If (and it remains an if) Hicks was motivated to kill because of an ideological anti-religious atheism, he could well be considered a lone wolf terrorist. Of course, who gets to be considered a terrorist is not based on clear criteria. It essentially comes down to this: a terrorist is whomever the government determines to be one.
Whether officials will consider an ideology-driven killing of Muslims by a white gunman as possible terrorism will be telling. Don't hold your breath.