What is Terrorism?

This morning a close friend emailed me this article from CNN about this morning’s plane crash in Austin and pointed out the quote, “federal authorities said preliminary information did not indicate any terrorist connection.” My friend asked incredulously, “How is this not a terrorist attack?”

The question reminded me of a comment I made recently on Facebook where I said that in today’s discourse the word terrorism is inextricably linked with Islamic extremism. Commenters largely disagreed with that assertion, strongly objecting to what one termed a highly “narrow” defintion of the word. That narrow definition may not be accurate by Daniel Webster, but it effectively characterizes how the word is used by most non-academics around us.

After taking a moment to think about my friend’s question and my Facebook discussion on the same subject, I posed the question to the Twitterverse. I asked if the Austin plane crash qualified as terrorism. Immediately my friend @mjsamuelson –one of the most intelligent and energetic political activists I’ve ever met–responded “Not since 9/11. From that point “terrorism” had a different connotation.”

Back when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, it was always referred to as terrorism. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was also frequently described as a terrorist. Yet today news outlets, federal officials, and many citizens refused to call the deliberate crashing of a private plane into a building full of civilians an act of terrorism.

Is it so that the definition of the word “terrorism” changed on September 11, 2001?