Was the Colorado nightclub attack terrorism? Does it matter?

21 November 2022, 1108 EST

Once again, America is enduring the horrors of a mass shooting. This time a gunman attacked a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, opening fire before patrons grabbed his weapon and beat him with it. As of the time of writing (Monday morning) five are dead, and there are fears the number will increase.

And once again, we are trying to make sense of this. Why did the shooter do this? What could have prevented this? Was this “random, senseless” violence or a targeted attack? Or was it something more, a terrorist attack against the country’s LGBTQ population?

What makes something terrorism?

Terrorism is a specific form of political violence, even though the term is used rather loosely. Bruce Hoffman’s definition is the most commonly used, the “deliberate creation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in pursuit of political change” by a non-state actor. In order for an act of violence to count as terrorism, it must satisfy all of these criteria.

First, it must involve the deliberate creation of fear. That is, it must be planned rather than a last minute fit of violence. This excludes attacks that are purely mental health crises.

Second, it must be political. This can be defined broadly, to include idiosyncratic or even incoherent ideologies. But there must be some political beliefs inspiring the attack. This excludes criminal acts motivated by profit, and violence motivated by anger or revenge.

Finally, it must be in pursuit of political change. That is, the violence is not just inspired by political beliefs but intended to realize those beliefs or change society in line with them. This gets into some gray areas. I would argue this excludes targeted assassinations; these can be political, but they are often focused on one person–such as a President–rather than a broader political struggle (this isn’t always the case, of course). It also excludes hate crimes, which is violence motivated by a political belief–anger at a racial, religious or ethnic minority’s behavior or presence–but tends to be spontaneous with little thought of a broader campaign. Again, this isn’t always the case.

While there are overlaps between types of political violence, we can definitely tell when something is terrorism. If it satisfies all these criteria, it’s terrorism. If it is missing one–such as being in pursuit of political change–then it would be another form of political violence. Some have tried to discuss borderline cases of political violence that is not clearly terrorism as “stochastic terrorism.” I’m wary of any attempt to coin a new term to deal with ambiguities in existing language–see my critique of “smart power” here–and think this move is similarly unhelpful. If we clarify that acts of violence that are not terrorism are still serious–as I discuss below–however, we won’t have to resort to twisting the language of terrorism.

(There is also the non-state criteria. This is less relevant here, as it was clearly by a non-state actor. But debates over this criteria come up in cases of “state terror.” Another common debate has to do with whether or not to count attacks against military targets as terrorism. That again, is irrelevant here).

Was this attack terrorism?

So what can we say about this attack? It’s too early to tell for sure but we have some idea what went into this. The shooter had a history of violence against his family, with indications it was related to a mental health crisis. This doesn’t actually tell us much. Someone can have a mental health crisis but still commit violence in pursuit of political change.

His grandfather was a far-right Republican politician, and his mother had expressed support for his grandfather’s views. This doesn’t necessarily mean the attacker was inspired by far-right views, but it indicates he’d been exposed to them.

So I would say it’s possible this was non-political violence if it wasn’t for the choice of target. It’s hard to imagine a shooter picking a gay nightclub at random. It’s very likely, then that this attack was connected to homophobia. People have pointed to contemporary homophobic messages coming from far-right media figures and politicians as the cause; that may be true, but we really need more evidence before we can say that. I’m more convinced by the fact that a drag queen brunch was scheduled for the day after the attack; given current far-right outrage over drag queen events, this seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Overall, I think it is fair to say an attack on a gay nightclub is inspired by homophobic beliefs.

It’s hard to argue this is terrorism, though, unless new evidence comes out. It’s not clear if the shooter had a political platform he hoped to advance with the attack. Looking at the available evidence, I would say this is political violence but not terrorism.

What if it wasn’t terrorism?

Does it matter, though, if it isn’t terrorism? We often act as if something isn’t terrorism that means it’s not serious. But that’s not the case. Hate crimes, on top of the direct violence, can create a sense of vulnerability in targeted communities and even cause them to move or change their behaviors.

There are two problems with the way we discuss terrorism. One, as I alluded to, is the assumption that “terrorism” equals “serious violence,” while if we say something is not terrorism that means it isn’t a big deal. But that is not accurate; terrorism is one category of political violence. Something can be not-terrorism and still be a major concern. There are not (or at least there should not be) any moral or value judgments attached to the term.

The second is that we assume categories of political violence are distinct and unchanging. However, as Tilly argued, it is better to think of different types of political violence as specific manifestations of collective violence that vary according to scale and intensity. This means they are all related, and that they can easily shift from one form to another. Civil wars can degrade into terrorist attacks. Sporadic communal clashes can cohere into an organized terrorist campaign.

This last point is significant for discussions of the Colorado attack, and other such instances of violence that are likely connected to far-right beliefs. First, even if it not terrorism, it is still a destructive form of political violence we need to take seriously. Additionally, the more of these incidents that occur, the greater the likelihood they will coalesce into an organized terrorist campaign. As I’ve discussed here, I worry that all it will take is a charismatic organizer–similar to Osama bin Laden–to pull this off.

I do not think this attack was terrorism (although that could change as more information comes out). Based on the information available, it seems like a case of political violence inspired by homophobic beliefs. This does not make it any less of a threat. Indeed, given the fact that we can’t point to an organized terrorist group behind the attack, it actually makes the violence even more insidious and disruptive.