The National Rifle Association (NRA) may be dedicated to armed self-defense, but the organization itself is largely indefensible. NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who billed the group for his luxury clothing and lavish vacations, spent the summer purging high-ranking rivals who questioned its dire financial straits. Though it bills itself as the nation’s “largest civil-rights organization,” the NRA is unenthusiastic about defending the rights of black gun owners and has trafficked in racist rhetoric through its media outlet. The group wields its political influence to block gun-control measures backed by 90 percent of the American people.
All of this makes the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ line of attack on the organization all the more baffling. Arguing that the NRA bears some responsibility for mass shootings, it passed a resolution declaring that the NRA is a “domestic terrorist organization.” The gun-rights organization was quick to respond. “This is a reckless assault on a freedom-loving organization, its members, and the principles our nation stands for,” the group said in a statement.
The sentiment nevertheless enjoys a notable measure of public support. In a YouGov poll released last week, 43 percent of Americans said that describing the NRA as a domestic terrorist organization is either completely or mostly accurate.
They are wrong. Mass shooters don’t commit massacres in the NRA’s name, or for the purpose of advancing its particular political agenda. Its leaders don’t organize violent attacks against gun-control advocates or their elected allies. And while gun-rights supporters often warn of bloodshed if gun owners’ Second Amendment rights are violated, that rhetoric still falls short of direct incitement to commit murder. Describing the NRA as a domestic terrorist organization misunderstands how it uses power to achieve its goals. It adds heat without shedding any light.
What this illuminates instead is the uselessness of the term “terrorism” as a descriptor. It’s often applied to describe the very real phenomenon of political violence, whether committed by jihadist groups like ISIS or individual white nationalists who claim no organizational ties. But the term “terrorism” is so nebulous and ripe for abuse that it’s long outlived its usefulness as a means to understand violence of any kind.
What counts as terrorism? Like pornography, it’s largely in the eye of the beholder. Scholars who study political violence agree on certain characteristics: It’s generally committed by groups and individuals other than the government, and it’s generally carried out to advance political goals. From there, they diverge wildly on the specifics. By one recent count, academics and lawmakers around the world have created at least 260 definitions of what constitutes “terrorism.” As with art or beauty, the lack of consensus suggests that “terrorism” is ultimately subjective.
Part of the problem is that the term “terrorism” wasn’t created to serve as an analytic framework for understanding violence. It emerged as a political epithet during the darkest chapters of the French Revolution. Maximillian Robespierre, the radical leader who oversaw the Reign of Terror, spoke positively about the use of “terror” to achieve his revolutionary aims. Critics of his brutality described him as a terrorist not to understand how he wielded violence, but to give emotive weight to their disgust with his tactics.
Though it received sporadic usage thereafter, the term didn’t really hit its stride until the mid–twentieth century. Politicians and academics alike began using it to describe violence committed by non-state actors for political reasons. The Cold War, the collapse of European colonial empires, and ethno-nationalist strife in major democracies provided no shortage of opportunities: armed republicans and loyalists during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the FLN in Algeria, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the third Ku Klux Klan in the American South, and much more.
Using the term “terrorism” serves two interconnected purposes. One of them is largely rhetorical in nature. For particularly heinous crimes like mass shootings and car bombings, it’s not enough to simply describe them as murder or even mass murder. People naturally search for terms that not only convey the political aspect of the killings, but more fully express their revulsion and horror towards the event itself. Terrorism in this sense is more than just homicide; it’s a super-crime that demands a greater response than the average killing would receive from law enforcement.
Unfortunately, these sentiments create opportunities for exploitation. President Donald Trump spent the 2016 election complaining that his political opponents wouldn’t use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe ISIS and al-Qaeda. His interest wasn’t methodological rigor; the goal was to feed and stoke anti-Muslim sentiments among his supporters. Those sentiments, in turn, would bolster support to the policies he hoped to enact against Muslims writ large, like banning their entry into the United States and surveilling their places of worship.
That leads to the other reason that “terrorism” is popularly invoked: to justify a government response that goes beyond normal legal and constitutional limits. In a way, “terrorism” doesn’t actually exist. Those who set off bombs or gun down dozens of people for ideological reasons are often committing murder, albeit at an unusually large scale. Defining their crimes as “terrorism” helps disconnect the state’s response from the actual criminal behavior at hand. Investigating “potential terrorists” sets off fewer civil-liberties sirens than investigating “potential murderers” or “potential loan sharks.”
That disconnect only heightens the likelihood that government officials will eventually abuse their powers. The George W. Bush administration responded to the September 11 attacks with torture, mass warrantless surveillance, indefinite detention, and secret watch lists. The New York Police Department spent a decade working with CIA officials to illegally monitor the city’s Muslim residents, tracking their whereabouts and recording their activities en masse without justification. Though some of those programs have now ended, others lurch onwards more than eighteen years after 9/11.
Liberals have learned some lessons from those scandals, but seem to have missed the larger point. Some Democrats have responded to recent white-nationalist attacks by proposing a federal domestic-terrorism law that would give the government new powers to pursue white-nationalist groups. As I noted last month, history provides more than a few precedents to show that such laws would be used against liberal and left-leaning groups that don’t commit violence. The bill’s sweeping language also leave open the possibility that innocent political activists could face charges for constitutionally protected behavior. But the political need to provide a super-response to a super-crime appears to have outweighed those lessons.
None of this means that political violence and mass murder don’t exist. It doesn’t mean the social and psychological toll from those acts is any less real for those affected by them. Nor does it mean that they aren’t problems worth confronting. All that it means is that “terrorism” is not the best way to understand the forms of violence that it describes. It may feel emotionally satisfying—even righteous—to tag the political organizations you don’t like with the label, but the more this idea creeps into our political discourse, the more it undermines any substantive insight it might provide. Ultimately, it does more damage to our civic fabric than it harms the NRA.