How Do We Categorize “Terrorists”?

A tragedy occurs. Lives are lost. The media and government rush to investigate and understand what they can. Analysis occurs. Government officials either deem it an act of terror, an act of hate, or an act of instability. Publicly, this is usually the process that the people see when a tragedy occurs in the world. When the acts are deemed terrorism, the media often labels the subjects as being associated with ISIS – when/if ISIS claims responsibility – and mentally unstable or “suicidal for a cause”. The mainstream media rarely labels a terrorist as “normal”. They’re either labeled as deranged, suicidal, or social outcasts.

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times published an opinion piece entitled “In the Age of ISIS, Who’s a Terrorist, and Who’s Simply Deranged?” The article contains a strong analysis of the ISIS and terrorism conversation in America, showcasing how we tend to label “terrorist” and “deranged social misfit” exclusively together, as if a terrorist can’t be a stable-minded, charismatic person. A letter to the editor entitled “Not All Terrorists Are Deranged Misfits” pointed out this exact point. The writer, Stuart Gottlieb, a Columbia University professor, said that despite the thoughtful analysis, the article favored explanation by “Western terrorism analysts” that those who commit acts of terror “on behalf of the global jihad” are “’unstable people’” or “’social misfits’” who are “all looking to die ‘for a cause.’” In much more eloquent words than mine, Gottlieb is saying that in America, we only like to see terrorists as those people who don’t belong and have nothing to lose. But that is not always the case. As Gottlieb points out in his letter, in most terrorist acts, the attackers “clearly, and cogently, explain the geopolitical rationale for their actions.”

I believe that the reason we find it hard to accept rationale like this is because it is extremely difficult to comprehend or accept acts of hate and terror on innocent people. It is even more difficult to accept that those terrorists can knowingly harm, even take, so many lives without having some sort of mental, emotional, or social dysfunction. How can they be “normal” people if killing innocents is not what “normal” people do? It’s what “crazy” people do. Or at least that’s how the definition has been shaped in society. We’ve socially constructed the concept of a stereotypical “terrorist” out of fear from the truth: “normal” people can also be inspired and radicalized by terrorist groups.