Meet Brian Howard. Until last Friday, Brian was a contract employee with a Federal Aviation Administration radar facility outside of Chicago. Allegedly upset over news of a transfer to Hawaii (Hawaii!), Brian decided to end it all. He wrote a suicide note on Facebook, locked himself in the basement of the building, and cut the radar feeds, damaging the communications system. He then set fire to it all before slashing his wrists and stabbing himself in the throat. Another employee was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. According to his Facebook post, Brian didn’t think that his plan would cause that much of a disruption:
“The outage that I’m about to take should not take a large toll on the airspace as all comms should be switched to the alt location which will most likely cause some delays.”
As it stands, there have been over two thousand flights canceled since Friday morning.
Howard goes on to slam the US government and the people in its employ for living up to the stereotype of being lazy and useless, and declares he no longer has faith in humanity before imploring people to wake up and realize how shitty our government is. Well, duh. If there’s one thing liberals and conservatives and everyone in between and on the fringe can agree on, it’s that our government is in need of some serious fixing. Not too many would try to blow up an FAA radar facility to emphasize the point, though.
Howard didn’t have much of a criminal background. He wasn’t affiliated with any terrorist organization. He acted alone. Still, instead of taking his life in the privacy of his own home, he had the wherewithal to drive to work and carry out his plot, putting thousands of lives at risk. On Monday, he was charged with destruction of aircraft facilities, and if found guilty he’s looking at twenty years and a hefty fine. His attorney is asking for mercy, citing his client’s mental health issues. Mental issues aside, when is an act of terrorism, terrorism? While federal agencies can’t seem to agree on a concrete definition, the FBI offers this, along with a few others:
Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
This seems to fit Howard’s motive. He made his beef with the US government and its handling of foreign policy very clear. And again, he knowingly set out to destroy federal property and wreak havoc on American soil, disrupting the lives of citizens and causing thousands, perhaps millions of dollars in damage. So why doesn’t this count as terrorism? According to Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism, it could be because the definition has changed so often in the last two hundred years:
The word `terrorism’ was first popularized during the French Revolution. In contrast to its contemporary usage, at that time terrorism had a decidedly positive connotation. The system or regime de la terreur of 1793-4 — from which the English word came — was adopted as a means to establish order during the transient anarchical period of turmoil and upheaval that followed the uprisings of 1789, as it has followed in the wake of many other revolutions. Hence, unlike terrorism as it is commonly understood today, to mean a revolutionary or anti-government activity undertaken by non-state or subnational entities, the regime de la terreur was an instrument of governance wielded by the recently established revolutionary state. It was designed to consolidate the new government’s power by intimidating counter-revolutionaries, subversives and all other dissidents whom the new regime regarded as `enemies of the people’. The Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal (`People’s Court’ in the modern vernacular) were thus accorded wide powers of arrest and judgement, publicly putting to death by guillotine persons convicted of treasonous (i.e. reactionary) crimes. In this manner, a powerful lesson was conveyed to any and all who might oppose the revolution or grow nostalgic for the ancient regime.
Hoffman points out how semantics and the accommodation of political language and conversation throughout the years has made defining terrorism even harder to nail down. These things, coupled with our hesitance to call out domestic terrorism may be the reason why Howard and others like him will never be seen as enemies of the state. Besides, we prefer our boogeymen swarthier and foreign.