The Chattanooga killings aren’t terrorism: They are a rational, horrific act of war.

The Chattanooga Killings Aren’t Terrorism

The Chattanooga Killings Aren’t Terrorism

Events beyond our borders.
July 17 2015 8:43 PM

The Chattanooga Killings Aren’t Terrorism

They are a rational, horrific act of war.

Chattanooga.
Members of the FBI gather evidence at an Armed Forces Career Center on July 17, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images

According to local and federal officials, Thursday’s bloody assault in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was ruthless and deranged. The U.S. attorney says investigators are treating the attacks, committed by a lone gunman at a military recruiting station and a Navy and Marine Corps Reserve center, as a possible “act of terrorism.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter calls it a “senseless act of violence.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says the attacks were out of bounds: “While we expect our Sailors and Marines to go into harm's way, and they do so without hesitation, an attack at home, in our community, is insidious and unfathomable.”

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Senseless? Unfathomable? Terrorism? I doubt it. If this incident was inspired by Islamic jihad, as many investigators suspect, then it probably wasn’t senseless. Nor was it terrorism. It was a rational, horrific act of war.

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Americans think we’re tough because we have a strong military. In truth, most of us are soft. We know nothing of combat. We don’t regularly hear gunfire or worry about our kids dying in an airstrike. When somebody who’s angry at our government opens fire in one of our cities, we can’t believe crime has come to our own neighborhood. We call it terrorism.

But not every act of political violence is terrorism. Terrorism has a specific legal meaning. Some definitions, such as the one in Title 18, Section 2331 of the U.S. Code (dangerous crimes intended “to influence the policy of a government”), are so absurdly broad that they could cover almost any politically motivated crime. The tightest and best definition is the one in Title 22, Section 2656 of the U.S. Code: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets.” That’s the definition our government applies when documenting terrorism overseas.

The typical noncombatant target is an innocent civilian. That’s what makes Sept. 11 and the ISIS hostage beheadings clear acts of terrorism. By this standard, Chattanooga wasn’t terrorism, because the victims weren’t civilians. All four were Marines. Three had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Mabus, the Navy secretary, is outraged that these men were killed stateside. They were at a training facility, not in a war zone. And the Army office shot up a few minutes earlier by the same gunman, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, was just a recruiting center. The State Department’s definition of terrorism takes this context into account. It stipulates: “The term ‘non-combatant’ … is interpreted to mean, in addition to civilians, military personnel (whether or not armed or on duty) who are not deployed in a war zone or a war-like setting.”

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But what, exactly, is a war zone? Today, with the aid of remotely piloted vehicles, you can engage in combat overseas without leaving the safety of your own country. That’s what many of our fighters are doing. Last month in the Daily Beast, David Axe reported that according to U.S. military officials, during the past year, drones have conducted nearly 900 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria—and even when they’re not firing the missiles, they’re “involved in pretty much every engagement.” The drones are being piloted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, with help from other stateside bases. If you want to kill the people who are firing those missiles in Iraq, you have to come here.

Are trainers and recruiters noncombatants? If so, we’re killing noncombatants every week. According to the Pentagon’s latest published data, our coalition in Syria and Iraq has struck more than 2,000 enemy “buildings” and nearly 500 “staging areas.” A “staging area” can be almost anything—according to the U.S. military glossary, it’s “a general locality established for the concentration of troop units.” Scan the Pentagon’s daily reports on the campaign, and you’ll see accounts of strikes against “barracks,” “compounds,” “structures,” “manufacturing workshops,” and “logistics hubs.” If you’re an ISIS foot soldier, it hardly matters where you are or what you’re doing. You’re a target.

Recruiters are standard fare. In February, we sent a drone to kill an ISIS recruiter in Afghanistan, even though, according to a Pentagon spokesman, the recruiter had “decided to swear allegiance to [ISIS] probably no more than a couple weeks ago. And he didn't have a whole lot of depth to any network resources or manpower when he did it.”

Training facilities aren’t just fair game. They’re prized targets. President Obama has repeatedly bragged about hitting them. In February, White House spokesman Josh Earnest proudly informed reporters that coalition airstrikes had “succeeded in taking out at least 20 training camps.” Two weeks ago, Obama indicated that the tally had increased: “We’ve taken out thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories, and training camps.”

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When we target a training facility and kill its inhabitants, we don’t call that terrorism. We call it moral success. Last fall, at a poststrike briefing, the Pentagon’s spokesman showed reporters a video of a “residence” on the Iraq-Syria border:

This was a residential area that had been used for a training site and for a logistics site for [ISIS] fighters. It was engaged with multiple GPS-guided missiles. … And, as you can see, the aircraft targeted locations within the boundaries, within the fence line of the residence. … It was through the careful planning and coordination of U.S. Central Command's combined air operations center, located in the region, that these strikes were successful with minimal collateral damage.

That’s how we evaluate our own strikes overseas: If we target a training site, and if the only people we kill are the fighters or trainees inside, our hands are clean. And that seems to be what Abdulazeez did to our own men in Chattanooga. We don’t yet know his motive. But if it turns out that he was angry about U.S. military action abroad—and if his response was to kill U.S. military personnel—does that make him a terrorist? Or just an enemy combatant?

Chattanooga wasn’t the first attack on a military facility in the United States, and it won’t be the last. We’ve been hit before, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and in Fort Hood, Texas. According to the New America Foundation, 1 of every 3 Americans who have been accused of planning domestic attacks since Sept. 11—that’s nearly 40 people, out of 119—targeted military sites.

I’m glad many of those miscreants are sitting in prison. And I’m sorry that a few succeeded. But if they’re going to come after us, it’s better that they target our service members than our schools and buses. We should aspire to more than winning this war, or the next one. We should aspire, all of us, to ending the deliberate killing of civilians.