The definition of terrorism is in the Mire.
In truth, there is a similar sort of grim calculus at work in America on a daily basis. For just about enough people the 2nd amendment right to bear assault rifles, use incendiary ammunition and own your very own rocket launcher* is more important than the right not to be shot dead at your place of work or education by the latest person to decide they're mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Every so often there is a massacre so exceptional, like that at Sandy Hook, that it seems, even if just for a moment as though something might finally be done, only for momentum to very quickly dissipate.
It does then get all the more difficult to quickly work out whether the latest incidence of mass bloodshed is a "simple" case of loser going down in a blaze of infamy, or rather An Attack on Us All by Islamic Fascists. Indeed, Dylann Roof's racially motivated mass killing wasn't deemed terrorist, nor was the attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic a week and a half ago, even if in the case of the former it was very much politically motivated, with more than reasonable suspicions about the same with the latter. Mass shootings in America have become an epidemic: depending on whether your prefer the collating method of the GunsAreCool group on Reddit, which counts incidents where four or more people are shot regardless of the circumstances and for this year comes to the figure of 353 so far, or the one used by Mother Jones, which has far tighter criteria and counts "only" 4, both make clear that mass shootings are occurring more often.
On quite a few levels the mass shooting in San Bernardinho by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik still doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of being an outright terrorist attack by Islamic State sympathisers as opposed to a curious mixture of terrorist act and more familiar "going postal". The killers don't seem to have given any explanation themselves as to their actions during the attack, while they destroyed or smashed up all their electronic equipment prior to carrying it out. The terrorists and spree killers of our modern media age usually want their reasoning, however twisted or self-serving to be broadcast and disseminated as widely as possible, for us to feel their rage, their anger, their anguish, to be scared that we could be next.
It could be that as Farook and Malik left behind pipe bombs and other explosives at their home the plan was to go on and commit further attacks, possibly even returning to the house to replenish their arsenal. Alternatively, it could be that the argument Farook has been said to have had at his workplace, the Inland Regional Center social services agency, earlier in the day made him decide at the last minute to change targets. Malik it is claimed may have pledged allegiance or made some sort of dedication to IS just before the attack took place, but regardless of that the very involvement of a woman in a mass shooting is rare in itself, let alone for a husband and wife to apparently act as a team.
That Farook was an Illinois born US citizen and Malik a Pakistani who spent a large period of her life living in Saudi Arabia hasn't of course stopped the Republican presidential candidates stepping up their demands for not so much a single Syrian refugee to be allowed in lest they be a terrorist. Your average American is far more likely to be caught up in a mass shooting/spree killing carried out by a white male with a legally bought weapon, an action almost indistinguishable in method and results from an attack deemed to be "terrorist" carried out by two brown people, and yet the clamour, fearmongering and the demands that something be done, not about the easy availability of firearms and ammunition designed for warfare, but instead about Islamic State abroad is the overriding discourse of the day. Just, you might add, as it was always going to be and always seemingly will be.
Which brings us to Leytonstone underground station last Saturday night. According to the Metropolitan police the stabbing there was a "terrorist incident". The decision to distinguish it as such was apparently "as a result of information received at the time from people who were at the scene and subsequent investigations". These subsequent investigations must have moved extremely quickly, as the police were describing it as a "terrorist incident" within a couple of hours. A former counter-terrorism officer quoted by the Graun agreed with the Met's description of the incident, as "he espoused a political motive and he caused someone harm and threatened violence".
Terrorism is undoubtedly something different to each person, although I especially like the War Nerd's designation that a terrorist group is any armed faction that doesn't have an air force. Some, like myself, will argue that the murder of Lee Rigby was not a terrorist attack, while others will vehemently disagree. I would like to think though that most people would not declare on the basis of someone shouting "this is for Syria, my Muslim brothers" they are a terrorist by that very fact. Anyone can "espouse a political motive" while doing any stupid fool thing; it doesn't mean they so much as believe themselves, let alone that the police or the public should take them at their word. The Telegraph is reporting tonight that the family of Muhaydin Mire, the man charged with attempted murder over the incident, had contacted the Met with concerns over his mental health 3 weeks ago. Whether or not it turns out that Mire was suffering from delusions when he stabbed and then we're told sawed at the neck of his victim, to treat one man with a knife as a terrorist based on his ravings is to give in to and elevate his act from the merely criminal into something that it neither deserves to be nor should be treated as such.
If the incident carries on being treated as "terrorist" however, where does that leave us? Predictably enough, anyone on social media who cited a link between last week's Commons vote on Syria and the words of Mire was quickly called out. Apart from Mire saying "my Muslim brothers", a line that wasn't included in most accounts until the hearing today, there was nothing to suggest any sort of sympathy for Islamic State or that he was linking his actions to Islam at all. No one has claimed he shouted "Allahu Akbar", the most common cry of Islamic militants when they are carrying out an attack. The house magazine of IS, Dabiq, in its latest issue encouraged lone attackers to "pledge allegiance, record a statement and carry a banner", none of which it seems Mire did, unless more is still to come out.
Who though are we to second guess the police? If they say an incident is a terrorist one, then surely it follows that we should look at what transpired and react accordingly. "This is for Syria," the assailant said, and what conclusion are to we draw other than he was influenced by what went on earlier in the week, influenced it would seem to the point where he decided to act?
For if his was actions were those of a terrorist, then where else do we need to look for explanation than to the obvious? We don't need to consider whether he has mental health problems, just as we didn't in the case of Michael Adebowale. We don't need to wonder if it might occur to an especially narcissistic criminal in the future to ascribe political motives to their crime for the extra attention it would bring despite their apparent absence, as if something looks to be politically inspired despite other evidence suggesting otherwise, that's enough. We don't need to worry if there is something other than extreme silliness, or narcissism, again, behind social media solidarity of the #YouAintNoMuslimBruv variety, the need to make clear just how united and together we are and project our goodness to our friends, as how else should a city respond to a "terrorist incident"? Why should we do anything other than, while blaming the perpetrator wholly for their own actions, not look at who or what inspired him to act, whether it be Islamist extremists, or politicians taking decisions of life and death? That, surely, is the logical end point of describing his actions as "terrorist", isn't it? Or is it just another label increasingly denuded of meaning?
*RPGs probably don't fall under the 2nd amendment. Probably.