A gunman yesterday attacked two military sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S Marines. Before anything was known about the suspect other than his name -- Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez -- it was instantly and widely declared by the U.S. media to be "terrorism." An FBI official announced at a press briefing: "We will treat this as a terrorism investigation until it can be determined it was not."
That "terrorism" in U.S. political and media discourse means little beyond "violence by Muslims against the West" is now too self-evident to debate (in this case, just the name of the suspect seemed to suffice to trigger application of the label). I've documented that point at length many times -- most recently, a couple of weeks ago when the term was steadfastly not applied to the white shooter who attacked a black church in Charleston despite his clear political and ideological motives -- and I don't want to rehash those points here. Instead, I want to focus on a narrow question about this term: Can it apply to violent attacks that target military sites and soldiers of a nation at war, rather than civilians?
In common usage (as opposed to legal definitions), "terrorism" typically connotes, if not denotes, "violence against civilians." If you ask most people why they regard the 9/11 attack as so singularly atrocious, you will likely hear that it was because the violence was aimed indiscriminately at civilians and at civilian targets. If you ask them to distinguish why they regard civilian-killing U.S. violence as legitimate and justified but regard the violence aimed at the U.S. as the opposite ("terrorism"), they'll likely claim that the U.S. only kills civilians by accident, not on purpose. Whether one is targeting civilian versus military sites is a central aspect to how we talk about the justifiability of violence and what is and is not "terrorism."
But increasingly in the West, violent attacks are aimed at purely military targets, yet are still being called "terrorism." To this day, many people are indignant that Nidal Hasan was not formally charged with "terrorism" for his attack on the U.S. military base in Fort Hood, Texas (though he was widely called a "terrorist" by U.S. media reports). Last October in Canada -- weeks after the government announced it would bomb Iraq against ISIS -- a Muslim man waited for hours in his car in a parking lot until he saw two Canadian soldiers in uniform, and then ran them over, killing one; that was universally denounced as "terrorism" despite his obvious targeting of soldiers. Omar Khadr was sent to Guantanamo as a teenager and branded a "terrorist" for killing a U.S. soldier fighting the war in Afghanistan, during a firefight. One of the most notorious "terrorism" prosecutions in the U.S. -- just brilliantly dissected by my colleague Murtaza Hussain -- involved an alleged plot to attack the military base at Fort Dix. Trumpeted terror arrests in the U.S. now often involve plots against military rather than civilian targets. The 9/11 attack itself targeted the Pentagon in addition to the World Trade Center.