Who gets called a terrorist?

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

The tPP database contains a lot of variety. There are the types of cases you would expect: bombings, shootings, attempts to join ISIS. But there are also some cases that would not necessarily spring to mind when you hear the word “terrorism”: militia activities, racially-motivated beatings, and immigration violations. For example, the database includes Francois Guagni, who illegally crossed the US-Canadian border with a knife and box cutter in his possession, as well as many others who faced similar charges as a result of counterterrorism efforts following 9/11.

Some, but not all, of the cases in the tPP database have been labelled terrorism by the US government. This labelling might occur in official reports, press releases, court documents, or during the investigation. In recent years, many have argued that there are biases in which defendants get labelled terrorists. Thinkpieces questioned why Dylann Roof and Nikolas Cruz were not widely called terrorists—was it because they were white?

I investigated the characteristics of cases which did or did not get called terrorism by the US government. From a random sample of 50 cases from the tPP database, some notable patterns arose.

For every racial category, more cases within my sample were called terroristic than not. White people made up the largest part of this sample, as well as the largest part of the cases both labelled and not labeled terroristic by the State. However, the majority of the cases that the state did not deem terroristic were prosecutions of white people. White people were much less frequently labelled terrorists by the US government than any other ethnic group.

An even starker pattern is seen in the distribution of Othered persons into the two groups. The variable “Other Status” (see Athena’s post for an in-depth explanation of this variable). Defendants are coded as non-othered when they are white or white passing, American or Western European, and Judeo-Christian. Non-white, non-western, and/or Muslim people are coded as othered. Othered persons make up the majority of the cases labelled terroristic, but only a small sliver of the cases which the US government did not call terrorism.

While these trends do not say anything causative about Roof or Cruz’s cases, it does appear that political violence by white non-Muslims is less likely to be labelled terrorism, at least in official US government speech.

– Taylor

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