We’ve had our share of disagreements about the semantics of “terrorism” on this blog, but I think we can all admit that this claim, (supposedly) made by Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) about the recent shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, makes no sense at all. From a story in The New York Times:
Senator Rick Scott of Florida, also a Republican, said the attack should be considered terrorism, regardless of the gunman’s motivation.
If we eliminate the gunman’s motivation altogether, then all we’re left with is the fact that a Saudi trainee shot some people at a naval air base. That fact by itself is consistent with an accident. But however we define it, an act of terrorism can’t be an accident.
I take more than a passing interest in definitions of “terrorism”–having been accused more than once of being a terrorist. (Yes, falsely.) I’m not aware of a definition anywhere in the literature or on the books that defines terrorism by omitting what the definer regards as its distinctive motivation–in other words, that regards terrorism as the equivalent of a strict liability offense. Terrorism without mens rea? Rick Scott can’t be that dumb, can he?
Well, no. It turns out that the Times’s reporting makes Scott’s comment sound dumber than it really was. This is what he actually said (from a local-to-Florida source):
Friday, Sen. Scott took to Twitter to express his concern, saying “we shouldn’t be providing military training to people who wish us harm.”
“I’m extremely concerned by the reports that this shooter was a foreign national training on a U.S. military base in Florida. Whether this individual was motivated by radical Islam or was simply mentally unstable, this was an act of terrorism,” he wrote in a statement. “It’s clear that we need to take steps to ensure that any and all foreign nationals are scrutinized and vetted extensively before being embedded with our American men and women in uniform.”
That doesn’t quite say that the shooting was terrorism “regardless of the gunman’s motivation.” It says that it’s terrorism regardless of two obvious motivations for the act, without specifying what other motivation might be involved (and without saying or implying that no specific motivation was involved). That certainly leaves things in an uninformative muddle, but isn’t as flat-out dumb as the Times’s reporting would suggest.*
Moral of the story: don’t trust the Times accurately to paraphrase anyone it regards as opposed to its (supposedly) liberal worldview. To illustrate this in a bit more detail: sometime next week, I’ll be posting an email exchange I had with Times reporter Maggie Astor, regarding her recent reporting on Tulsi Gabbard. Really no other way to put it: Astor’s response to my criticisms is an embarrassing shit-show of misquotations, misattributions, and misinferences. But read it when I post it, and decide for yourself.
The mainstream liberal press likes to pride itself on its commitment to facticity, and likes to attack alternative news sources (including blogs) as not-quite-up-to their exalted standards of precision. It also likes to complain a lot when the political right accuses it of of being “fake news.” I don’t have much sympathy for the political right, but the problem is, the mainstream liberal press often is fake news. Fake news, like fake orgasms, may work for awhile, but eventually, the ruse wears thin and becomes insultingly counter-productive. Both problems have the same solution: a bit more honesty, along with the confidence gained through experience that honesty can, in principle, lead to mutual satisfaction.
*In retrospect, it occurs to me that the most obvious way of reading Scott’s claim is to take it at face value as an inclusive disjunction: the shooting was either motivated by radical Islam or mental disorder, and in either or both cases, it’s terrorism. On this interpretation, Scott’s claim says practically the opposite of the Times’s paraphrase of him. It doesn’t say that the act was terrorism regardless of motivation, but was terrorism because it was motivated in one or both of two ways. His point was that we can call the act terrorism before we decide on which disjunct applies (because one of two must apply), not that we can call it terrorism independently of our knowledge of its motivation as such.