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With the probable execution of John Allen Muhammad in Virginia this week and the tragic rampage at Fort Hood by U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, still fresh in the American public’s memory, the term “terrorism” is being used quite a bit by the news media.

While there are those who would seek to link the two very different incidents to one another, given that they were murderous rampages committed by two military-trained Muslim men, political, military, religious, law enforcement and other leaders have gone to great lengths to explain that these acts are indeed distinct and are not some larger plot by Muslims against those with other religious beliefs. Those are facts, but is it proper to use the word “terrorism” to accurately describe what these men did?

If you’re Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-CT), the Chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, you’ve already made up your mind on the Ft. Hood shootings. In an appearance on Fox News Sunday, the independent and security-minded Senator stated that, “We don’t know enough to say now, but there are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act.”

The Senator further stated that if news reports were true, that Mr. Hasan had turned to Islamic extremism, “the murder of these 13 people was a terrorist act and, in fact, it was the most-destructive terrorist act to be committed on American soil since 9/11.”

In the case of John Allen Muhammad, the leader of the D.C. Sniper team that murdered 10 and wounded several others in the National Capital Region in October 2002, he was one of the first people convicted under the Commonwealth of Virginia’s anti-terrorism laws enacted shortly after 9/11. As a result of those convictions and baring clemency by VA Governor Tim Kaine or some last-minute action by the U.S. Supreme Court, Muhammad will pay the ultimate price with a lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarret, VA on the evening of November 10th.

As repugnant and horrific as the murderous actions of Hasan and Muhammad were, do they constitute “terrorism?”

If you were to stop someone on the street and ask them what is terrorism, chances are they would describe the 9/11 attacks or some sort of suicide attack. Furthermore, if you were to explain what an act of terrorism is, you might describe improvised explosive device (IED) explosions or a suicide car bombing like those that have killed thousands over the past two decades. If you’ve studied terrorism, you might even reference some of the more notable events and groups like the Achille Lauro cruise-ship hijacking by Abu Nidal or some of the other infamous attacks undertaken by the Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah and others.

Lone wolf actions and singular shooting sprees by deranged snipers and enraged misfits always seemed to be classified as something other than a formal act of terror – but that seems to have changed.

Nowadays, the term “terrorism” is used so often to describe horrific actions that the term’s meaning has expanded from what it was just a few short years ago. If history is any precursor, we’re about to see some further expansion of that definition beyond what it is today.

While “terror” is a more than appropriate word for describing what Muhammad and Hasan did to their victims, I can’t help but wonder in looking at these two different men and two different events why the term “terrorism” is used to describe their actions and it is not used to describe another recent tragic event.

When a mentally-deranged student, Seung-Hi Cho, killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in April 2007, the day’s carnage was as unprecedented as it was horrific, but I don’t recall it being described as “terrorism.”

Why?

Was it because Cho was mentally ill?

Was it because he didn’t spout off some hateful ideology?

Was it because he successfully took his own life and could not be prosecuted for his actions?

Was it because he wasn’t Muslim?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that if investigators had gone into his dorm room and discovered a poster of Osama Bin Laden on the wall, militant Islamist Web sites all over his computer and had found he had shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he was shooting his victims, we would be looking at the tragedy at Virginia Tech much differently than we do today.

That brings us to our use of the word “terrorism.” There are strict legal definitions of what does and does not constitute terrorism. Those definitions have come into play in the completed and forthcoming prosecutions of Muhammad and Hasan, but in terms of the word’s public use, we run a risk of de-sensitizing the real meaning of the word when we use it so easily to label unspeakable acts.

By offering that thought, I am not saying that what Muhammad, Hasan, Tim McVeigh and others have done is not terrorism. Legally, as well as in the eyes of society, they have all committed murder via acts of terrorism. But this word has a sense of power that should reserve it for the worst of actions and means. The legal system and society have judged Muhammad and McVeigh as terrorists, and it may eventually add Hasan to those ranks, but for whatever reason, Cho has avoided the label.

I don’t know the reason why, but I know that the debate on the word’s meaning is going to be a long discussion, and I hope to learn a lot more along the way.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More