In the last few years a particular talking point has become as inevitable after a domestic mass killing as a sunrise after night: “is this a crazy person or a terrorist.” This becomes increasingly obvious when the mass killing is carried out by a White Non-Muslim Male, such as the “Planned Parenthood” shootings a few days ago. The argument goes, since it’s a White Non-Muslim Male, it will be declared an act of mental disorder, not terrorism; but if the perpetrator is Non-White or, better, Muslim, it’ll be declared terrorism, because, you know, racism.
In a Venn diagram of “nutjobbery” and “terrorism,” there is of course a whole lot of overlap. Consequently, taking an incident and confidently parking it under one descriptor but not the other is often dubious. But I do have a simple test that would work at least sometimes to parse out those acts that are best described as “terrorism:” How many people were involved?
If it’s one person working alone, such as, say, Sulejman Talović (a Muslim immigrant who killed five people at a mall in Salt Lake City some years ago, an act I’d bet most people have either forgotten about or perhaps never heard of in the first place), or the Unabomber (a white leftist with a hate-on for modern technology), or Christopher Dorner (the black anti-gun-nut who led the LAPD on a merry chase a few years ago) it could go either way. But if two or more are working together? Like the Beltway sniper case from years ago, or the Boston bombings, Charlie Hebdo, the more recent Paris attacks, 9/11 and so on? Well… that would seem rather harder to blame on nuttery rather than terrorism.
People with similar political and/or religious ideologies finding each other and working together? Sure, I can see that happening, easy. Complete whackos finding each other and finding that their whackoism just happens to align, so they work together to do whacko things? Hmmm… that’s less likely. And when the number of perpetrators gets to three or higher, the statistical likelihood of it being just nutjobbery, as opposed to terrorism, seems to drop vanishingly low.
So. One guy? Nut. Two guys? Probably terrorist. Three guys? Definitely terrorist.