07 May 2013

The Difference Between Bias and Terrorism

Bias: Behaviour and/or beliefs based upon experiential modeling (non-statistical). Biases are necessary behavioural shortcuts because individuals cannot evaluate every single thing involved in every particular event and biases allow a person to act in accordance with the superficial information generally available. However, biases are not always rational and can be strongly contrary to societal norms.

Terrorism: An act or acts meant to cause fear of harm in others in order to affect behaviour.

Terrorism is one of those things in life that is so important that its definition has been clearly set out - both in society and in the law. We may argue over whether a particular set of facts fits within the definition, but reasonable minds do not disagree with its definition.

The federal definition of terrorism is spelled out in 18 USC 2331 as activities which (1) involve illegal acts (2) that are dangerous to human life (3) with the apparent intent to (a) (i) intimidate, or (ii) coerce the population, or (b) influence government policy thru (i) intimidation or (ii) coercion, or (c) affect governmental behaviour thru (i) mass destruction, or (ii) assassination, or (iii) kidnapping.

In Virginia 18.2-46.4 defines terrorism as (1) (a) 1st degree murder, or (b) 2d degree murder, or (c) voluntary manslaughter, or (d) violent crimes done by a mob, or (e) abduction, or (f) felony malicious bodily wounding, or (g) malicious bodily injury, or (h) robbery, or (h) carjacking, or (i) felony sexual assault, or (j) arson of a residence, or (k) destruction of a public building while occupied, or (l) being (i) a conspirator, or (ii) an abbettor, or (iii) an accessory before the fact to any of the previously listed crimes (2) which are committed with the intent to (a) intimidate the civilian population at large; or (b) influence the conduct or activities of the government of the United States, a state or locality through intimidation.

Even if you only rely on dictionaries you get similar definitions. Oxford Dictionary Online defines it as "the use of violence in the pursuit of political aims", Cambridge Dictionary Online says it is "violent action for political purposes" and Merriam-Webster states it is "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." 

Over at Gruntled Center, Professor Weston has confused bias with religious terrorism. In a post obviously meant to convey his disapproval of the biases displayed by a county commissioner in Coffee County, Tennessee, Professor Weston labeled the man a Hate-Filled Religious Terrorist because the man re-posted this photo:



Right. So this was apparently a one-off, thoughtless joke Barry West forwarded from someone else and only meant to share with his "friends" on Facebook.  The man obviously never thought it would go any farther.  However, in the modern era of constant need for "news", this non-story was salacious enough and fit into the Americans in flyover country are ignorant meme of sites like HuffPo, ThinkProgress, and msnNow and therefore it got lots of over-coverage (and I'm sure local media followed their lead). Pretty quickly, they beat the guy into submission.

Anyway I commented as follows:
A hate-filled religious terrorist would be someone who believes he has a positive duty under his religion to go out and do X to others to make them act in a certain manner. This man is reacting to a perceived threat. He may be over-reacting, but there's nothing here to indicate that his reaction is religion based or that he feels that he has a positive duty to seek out and harm or cause fear in those not of his religion in order to force them to behave in a certain manner. 
Professor Weston replied only to my first sentence and stated:
I have to disagree. A terrorist is not trying to make others act in a certain way. A terrorist is trying to induce terror by threatening violence and/or carrying out violence. 
Try as I might, I can't come up with a single act which falls into a "just to create terror" category. Most actors engaging in violence or threats have a blending of reasons for their violence. Revenge, self-aggrandizement, and intimidating other potential victims seem to be the top three reasons.  Attacks such as the Oklahoma City bombing - which was undeniably terroristic - are usually a mixture of revenge (for Waco and Ruby Ridge), attempted inspiration (trying to inspire like minded people the rise against the federal government), self aggrandizement (we remember McVeigh and Nichols), and an attempt to affect the behaviour of others thru terror (to cow the government so that it would not use militaristic force against people).

It also seems an unsupported assumption to state that these biases rise out of a religion (presumptively Christian) rather than fear and anger brought about by a long list of terroristic attacks on American targets by people associating themselves with Islam - the bombing of the Embassy in Lebanon, the first World Trade Center bombing, the Khobar Towers bombing, the killing of U.S. airmen in Germany, the USS Cole attack, 9/11, the Benghazi attacks, and the Boston Marathon - as well as a long list of similar attacks in Britain, Russia, the Sudan, Egypt, Thailand, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

To be fair, while not terrorism itself, the bias expressed in the joke is such that it may be indicative of a society that fosters terroristic activity. On the other hand, the glib reposting of a Facebook joke is not a good way to measure the depth of a bias. It required almost no time, thought, or effort (a couple clicks) and seems more likely an indication of a bias that is widely shared but shallow.  How many thousands of people, through the simplicity of Facebook, shared this particular jape? Unknown. Probably thousands. Looking through my Facebook feed this morning there are all sorts of similar posts relying on shallow biases. Jokes rely on biases in order to give the person receiving the joke a frame of reference. My feed has jokes based upon biases about men, women, children, parents, and Yankees. I do not expect any of those are indications of strong bias but they are indicative of widespread bias or they would not be so popularly reposted.

Actually, the question that keeps popping into my head is, what is the agenda of the person who initially publicized this story?  Because, that person put a lot more effort into this than the politician who clicked twice to repost.

8 comments:

gruntled said...

Hate speech seems to be a kind of terrorism to me. Pointing a gun at someone is a real threat, as has happened to American Muslims, especially in Tennessee (where West is a government official). Showing a picture of pointing a gun and labeling the target "Muslims" - not "terrorists," not "Al Qaeda" or "Michigan Militia" - makes the threat specifically religious.

Anonymous said...

[Part 1 or 2]

Ken, I disagree with your post in which you argue that it's not hate-filled religious terrorism when a county commissioner makes/sends a horribly offensive photo that equates a otherwise friendly greeting (a wink) with a violent and potentially deadly act (aiming a shotgun at another).

Generally, I agree that people tend to be overly sensitive. Also, I agree that media (all across the political spectrum) tends to over-sensationalize events. But this IS news. Barry West is a county commissioner. His photo and its caption are sickening.

The photo is a public servant [not sure if county commissioner is an elected position in that TN county] threatening another by pointing a shotgun and aiming down sight by 'winking', which would be the last action before pulling the trigger, directed towards a certain religious group.

Here, I agree with Professor Weston's label of Barry West as a "Hate-Filled Religious Terrorist" in the context of the shotgun Muslim wink photo of West. Break down this label...

FIRST, this is hate-filled. Hate is strong hostility/ intense dislike coming from anger, fear, sense of injury, etc. Here, pointing a shotgun specifically at anyone is extremely hostile. Suggesting to point it at anyone in an entire group of persons (whether Muslims, women, gays, Latinos, Jews, etc.) is ignorant and mean. Whatever West's motives were to have a photo directing threatened/actual violence towards a specific group of people, it arises from the opposite of love.

Anonymous said...

[Part 2 of 2]

SECOND, it is religious-based. The obvious and most prominent characteristic of a "Muslim" is their religious nature and beliefs. You seem to defend West's photo's focus on Muslims by saying that maybe his bias doesn't arise out of religion, but rather from the many terrorist attacks against the U.S. by people with Muslim ties. Does that matter? Barry West's photo endorses that a normal greeting to Muslims is aiming a shotgun at them. I don't care if West truly loves or hates or is indifferent to Muslims- the message of his photo prompts negativity (and condones threatened violence) towards an entire group of people. If a white guy held up racist signs with hate-speech towards blacks, is it acceptable if the white guy person defend himself by says 'well, it's not that they're black per se- it's just that those people do bad things'?!

THIRD, this is terrorism in the sense that it intimidates the targeted group of people. Only God and Barry West know for sure what it is his heart and mind as to whether he was merely joking or actually intending to intimidate. Under the federal definition, this fits b/c it is illegal activity depicted (brandishing, assault with deadly weapon) that is dangerous to human life and it has the apparent intent to intimidate or coerce the Muslim population.

I disagree with your definition of terrorism (requiring an intent to make other act in a certain way). Hypothetically, what if the Boston Marathon bombing brothers in fact only meant the bombs to be a sick joke? Would you say 'well, guess it's not terrorism; those brothers just had shallow biases,' b/c the subjective intent of the brothers was actually only a sick joke? If Bid Laden truthfully said 'I don't care at all how America reacts to 9/11; my intent was simply to spread fear and kill,' then 9/11 would not be terrorism under your definition. To be fair, you do a good job pointing out the mixed motives of terroristic person. But look again at the federal & VA definitions of terrorism-- both say it's terrorism if person does certain acts with the apparent or actual intent to intimidate or coerce.

You end your post by wondering about the agenda of the person who spread this story. I don't care if it was Barry West's sworn political enemy or his vengeful ex-wife-- the real story is the shameful hate communicated by his photo. The question that keeps popping into MY head is whether Barry West attends a Christian church, and if so, how would he rationalize his hateful photo with the love-your-neighbor teachings of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ken. I'm an atheist, and I would think the picture is funny, even if it was directed at atheists. (Note, I am constantly defending the rights of Muslims to religious freedom in the United States against those who claim Muslims have no religious rights (e.g., to build a mosque) because this is a "Christian nation.")

Matthew Claughton said...

Hi Ken, I'm afraid I have to agree with the majority on this one. In my opinion, this is definitely entering hate-filled territory and effectively tars all Muslims with the same brush.

This is a clear threat of violence and one that will not be taken lightly in the current social and political climate. Certainly not a wise move to make.

Ken Lammers said...

"Hate" is a pejorative way of saying biased. I am always suspicious when I see "hate" used to modify anything because someone is trying to manipulate me and this is usually because their actual argument is weak.

Filled - You're going to have to show more than clicking "share" and then "share photo" to show someone is "filled" with a bias. The fact that you strongly disagree with the bias does not mean that it is a huge part of Mr. West's existence or thought processes.

Religious - What do you think of when you say the words "religious man?" You think of someone who is follows the tenants of his religion. There's absolutely no evidence that Barry West was acting per his religious beliefs. He was speaking in bias against another's religion - he was showing an anti-muslim or (if more broadly written) anti-religious bias.

Ken Lammers said...

As for whether it was terrorism:

The act engaged in was constitutionally protected free speech - not an illegal act. We don't have the anti-speech codes of other countries.

The act involved clicking on a mouse button twice - hardly a danger to human life. Dangerous acts under the law almost always, and especially when speech is involved, require immediacy. A bias can lead to future dangers as it plays out in society, but this is not an immediate act of the person clicking the mouse button to share speech.

And finally, it is highly dubious that there was any intent to intimidate (I'm going to assume, without researching the matter, that population can be be defined as one of its component groups). He sent it only to his Facebook friends, probably in the mistaken assumption that it would go no further. This is a common error since Facebook has gone back on its policies and promises of privacy. In any event, it seems unlikely that Mr. West's Facebook friends were in any large part muslim. I agree that this picture is one that could be intimidating, but if it's not purposefully sent to a large number of muslims there's no intent to intimidate that population.

This is bias, not terrorism. I don't condone the bias, but not agreeing with the bias does not mean we can label it something it is not.

Ken Lammers said...

Apparent or Actual Intent

Statutes say this sort of thing because intent is almost impossible to prove if the defendant does not say "I did it because of X." Quite often a defendant has actually denied having the intent to commit a certain crime. On the other hand, we are also quite correctly uncomfortable with convicting someone based solely upon their actions, without considering what they intended. When a mother herding four kids through a grocery store sticks a bottle of gatorade in her coat pocket so she can grab little Bobby before he knocks over a ten foot pyramid of canned peas, but forgets to take it out and pay for it before leaving the store, we don't want to convict the mother of stealing despite the fact she took the item. So, the law is written in such a way to let the finder of facts - whether jury or judge - decide what the apparent intent of an act is. The standard jury instruction in Virginia states something to the affect that "You may infer that a person intends the natural consequences of his actions."

And, yes, Anon if you cannot prove an intent to commit terrorism you cannot convict a person of that particular crime. You can only convict the person of the underlying crime (murder, abduction etc.). Consider someone who has been fired and decides to go back and kill his boss and everyone else who gets in his way at the Acme Widget plant. The murders that follow are a mass murder (punishable by death in Virginia), but not terrorism. The results of mass murder and terrorism are often the same, but the intent differs.