The word “terrorism” conjures up sentiment beyond its dictionary definition. In his article “The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Terrorism,” David Cole argues that the war on terror allows the government “simultaneously to repeat history and to insist that it is not repeating history,” bringing about panic akin to that of the Red Scare (Cole 1). However, government does not hold this power exclusively. Without even uttering the term, news media can produce terrorist scares. When treated inappropriately by leaders of the public sphere, any event evokes sentiments of panic and fear— from act of terror to isolated tragedy. Before news coverage and government response, the Tucson shootings may have just been the latter. But news and government transformed tragedy into terror.

In order to decide whether Jared Loughner’s actions alone qualify as an act of terrorism, one must first define the term. According to Title 18 of the US Code on the Cornell University Law School website, “the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States

This definition makes Jared Loughner a terrorist. Shooting and killing a judge endangers life, breaks criminal laws, and affects government. But any shooting could satisfy those criteria because most violence “intimidate[s]… a civilian population.” Perhaps the US Code’s definition is too vague.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation calls terrorism “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Federal Bureau of Investigation) European states say that terrorism is a “specific offence… that may seriously damage a country… and is committed for the purpose of intimidating the population, forcing a third party to act or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental structures of a country…” (Terrorism handout) Loughner might be a terrorist under this definition, but to know, we would have to be him. While court cases can reach a formal ruling about whether or not an act falls under this definition, one’s true motives remain forever unsubstantiated. A definition contingent upon a person’s purpose for acting fails to define much. Of course, killing thousands and publicly announcing the intent to destabilize isn’t too vague—one can make some safe assumptions. But these definitions do little to address smaller crimes.

Definitions agreed upon by states function only for large acts of terror because large acts of terror are what the states writing these definitions have in mind. The definitions’ lack of clarity implicitly reveals that before even defining terrorism on paper, states have begun to define it internally— as something enormous. While terrorism intimidates the population, the idea of terrorism intimidates the officials who define it. This menacing conception doesn’t originate solely with government officials. It rises also from the media, feeding and feeding upon itself, fulfilling its definition every time the news implicitly defines it.

Ominous intro music, a somber or outraged tone of voice, and bold text accompany news reports about terrorism. Phrases like “war on terror” and “radical Islamic extremism” alert the audience that terror is a very real threat. Visual and verbal tactics combined attempt to scare viewers . As much as the day’s events compose the front page of the paper, the front page of the paper composes the day’s events—at least in the audience’s mind. A crime as minor as domestic assault might garner a few shaking heads, or it might intimidate an entire neighborhood and thus become terrorism under US code, depending upon how the neighbors hear about it.

Was the shooting in Tucson an act of terrorism? It was when Jan Brewer wanted America to see her as Arizona’s bold yet tactful leader, even in the face of the “tragedy and terror” (Full text…). It was when reporters, eager to get the story first, mistakenly pronounced Gabrielle Giffords dead It was when news zoomed slowly in on Loughner’s YouTube page , captivating viewers, but unsettling them as well. For the most part, the media did not include the term “terrorism” in reports of the incident, perhaps because it occurred in isolation. Yet, if Loughner had a support network or better logistics, his sentiment would still present a threat. Would the media then refer to him as a terrorist? Does capability qualify actions as terrorism? If so, government and media assist Loughner in becoming a terrorist because without their response and reporting, his actions would only have unnerved those in the Safeway parking lot. Terror depends on those who tell of it. Politicians, entertainers, and reporters all play a critical role in knowledge production for the general public. Thus, in the absence of a universal definition, terrorism is whichever crime those in the public eye use to grab attention.

Works Cited

Cole, D. 2003. The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Terrorism. Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 74. 19 January 2011.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2005. Terrorism: 2002-2005. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice. 26 January 2011.

2011. Full text of Gov. Jan Brewer’s State of the State address. AZ Capitol 20 January 2011.

2010. United States Code. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113B, § 2331. 19 January 2011.