Lost in Semantics: ISIS, Paris, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs

Editor's Note: terror database data expanded afternoon of 12/4

If you have friends that talk about news on social media, you may have noticed an interesting pattern in response to some very horrible tragedies that have occurred recently, like the shootings in Paris, San Bernadino, and Colorado Springs. Let's start with some illustrations.

Here's one that I've seen in response to the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino:


Or this one, in response to the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs:


So we have a lot of terms being thrown around like "terror" and "Islam." And when such memes are posted, we often see a "debate" of sorts form around trying to take control of the narrative by taking control of the words used. 

For example, some people are frustrated that President Obama doesn't use the phrase "Islamic Terror" when describing organizations like al-Qaeda or ISIS...

...while others retort that such phrasing is only consistent if we use the word "Christian Terror" for the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs.


We of course see similar semantic arguments in the print media and among politicians. Was the Colorado Springs shooting mental illness or Christian Terror? Was the San Bernardino shooting workplace violence or Islamic Terror

But let's take a step back for a moment.

If we are thinking like policymakers--and as citizens, perhaps we should--would there be a difference in our response given how much a killer does or does not use the Bible or Koran as justification for murder? What if they were enraged atheists, Communists, or poodle-lovers?  

Does our response change whether or not someone is a "terrorist" or not?

Similarly, is it reasonable to insist that the Islamic State is somehow decidedly "not Muslim" or that a group like the KKK was "not Christian?" By what criteria do we exclude certain adherents of a religion from their claim to be of that religion?

Something to consider: have we become lost in semantics? If everyone agreed that the Colorado Springs or San Bernardino shootings were or were not "Terrorism," or that they were or were not Christian- and Muslim-inspired, what would we change about our response to these horrific acts?

Does a rose by another name have a different scent?

A Brief Digression

Let's say ideology does matter in understanding how to prevent violence. What ideologies are most often associated with US terror acts in the long term?

It's not Islam, it's not Christianity, and it's not White Supremacy.

Between 1980 and 2005 (when the FBI has the data easily available) the ideologies most often behind terrorism in the US--according to the FBI--are Latino Nationalism (at 42% of incidents) and left-wing extremism (26% of incidents).


Between 2000 and 2005, the Earth Liberation Front was responsible for the majority of the terror attacks recorded by the FBI (followed by the Animal Liberation Front in a distant 2nd). The Global Terror Database has a wider definition, and it includes "individual" cases that don't have a clear religious or political motivation. Here's the list of 256 attacks since 2000 in the US for anyone interested.

The US did not go on any crusades against domestic Latino or left-wing political groups during this time--nor Jewish, Communist, etc, but these attacks have either become much less frequent or are simply not getting media attention. How did these change, and what can we learn for San Bernardino and Colorado Springs?

(Chart compiled by Loon Watch)