Thursday, December 24, 2009

Update on the Post Office Standoff: What is the Definition of Terrorism?

The standoff at the post office in Wytheville, Virginia ended peacefully late last night.  The gunman was taken into custody, and the three hostages (not five, as had been reported) were released.  The gunman was arraigned today and is now awaiting a psychiatric evaluation.  Former hostages and law enforcement authorities report that the man was upset at the government because his son had died in Afghanistan, his truck was being repossessed, and he thought the government was taxing citizens too highly and was taking away the right to bear arms.

There are two ways you can look at this situation.  You could say that a mentally imbalanced, disabled man who has suffered some tremendous loss acted out in a crazy way.  That's probably the way most people are inclined to see it. Alternately, you could say that an anti-government extremist commited an act of terrorism.  That's an entirely different ballgame.

Does how we frame this incident matter?  I think it does.  How we choose to tell the story of incidents such as this affects how we see ourselves in relationship to them.  If this is a crazy man acting in a crazy way, then it is random.  We know that crazy people are out there, and when we allow ourselves to think about that it makes us pretty uneasy.  But we also know that they are few and far between, and are not particularly looking for "us" when they act out.   If we frame this as an act of terrorism, on the other hand, we -- all of us -- instantly become targets.  Now, there are people out there who hate our government and want to harm our citizens.  As citizens, we ourselves are on their list.  While they may not be coming after us by name, they are coming after us. 

You can see how the terrorism framework instantly transforms this from an issue of random danger to one of "us vs. them."  But the gunman in this incident is an American.  He may be a veteran, and he almost certainly is the father of a serviceman killed in action.  That makes it very hard to frame this as us vs. them, because "they" are actually "us."  This explains why people recoil at descriptions of "far right violent extremists."  It's not only a political issue, it is one of self-preservation.  If the "other side" is right here, then anyone around us could be a member, and any one of us could be in danger.

At the same time, however, we aren't being very consistent.  An American Citizen, connected with the military, walks into a public place, motivated by anger at the United States, and starts shooting.  Is he a terrorist or a crazy person?  In the story we tell ourselves in this country, the thing that makes the difference isn't motive, it's identity.  If the gunman is Muslim, as at Fort Hood, it's a terrorist attack.  If the gunman is Christian, as he was yesterday, he's crazy.  That distinction may be real in many of our minds, but if you take a step back, it's hard to say whether there really is any difference.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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