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Discussion Point: Kansas City shootings constitute terrorism

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

There is perhaps no issue more hotly contested (or, at least, written about) in the political violence research community than what acts constitute terrorism. Even so, one would be hard pressed to find in the literature a definition of terrorism that would exclude the shootings in Kansas City as something other than terrorist attacks.

As a way of illustration, consider the definition of terrorism that is used by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), the largest collection of incident-level data on terrorism in existence. The GTD defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”[1] In essence, in order for an act to be considered terrorism according to the GTD’s definition, it must meet three key criteria.

  • First, the act must be motivated by a desire to achieve a goal that is larger than killing and hurting innocent people. Terrorism is not just violence; it is violence with a purpose.
  • Second, the act must be an attempt to achieve that larger goal by intimidating or coercing an audience beyond the act’s immediate victims.
  • Finally, the act must be outside legitimate warfare activities and include the use of illegal force, essentially meaning that it must target non-combatants.[2]

Do the shootings in Kansas City satisfy these criteria? The last criterion is clearly met since the attacks solely targeted civilians. The fist and second criteria, while warranting further discussion, are easily satisfied as well. The suspect in the shooting, Frazier Glenn Miller, was undoubtedly motivated to act by the desire to realize a set of (extreme) political and social goals. Miller repeatedly articulated these goals over the years through his involvement on white supremacist internet forums, during his failed run for a U.S. Senate seat, and in the “Declaration of War” that he leveled against the U.S. government in the 1980s.[3] Among other things, Miller desired to radically alter U.S. immigration policy, wanted to form all-White, non-Jewish communities, and wanted to rid the U.S. government of its “Jewish influence” and its “treasonous” politicians.[4]

Miller’s acts were also more about fear and intimidation than they were about targeting the specific individuals that were killed in the shootings. In particular, the attacks were meant to spark fear in Jewish communities in the United States and to send a message to policymakers and the public that reflected Miller’s staunch anti-Semitism and his well-documented beliefs about the “real” dangers to U.S. national security and the American way of life.[5] Miller went on record on numerous occasions over the years expressing support for similar violent acts, which he saw as justifiable and useful means for achieving his radical social and political goals.[6]

[1] The GTD’s definition of terrorism can be found at: http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/using-gtd/.

[2] Users of the GTD will note that an act must only meet two of these three criteria for inclusion in the database.

[3]  Judy L. Thomas, “For Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., a war declaration and a reduced sentence,” Kansas City Star, April 19, 2014; http://www.kansascity.com/2014/04/19/4970487/for-frazier-glenn-miller-jr-a.html; “Was Kansas Shooting Avoidable? White Supremacist was Ex-Informant with Criminal Past & Hateful Views,” Democracy Now!, April 16, 2014; http://www.democracynow.org/2014/4/16/was_kansas_shooting_avoidable_white_supremacist.

[4] “Frazier Glenn Miller: In His Own Words,” Anti-Defamation League, April 14, 2014; http://www.adl.org/combating-hate/domestic-extremism-terrorism/c/frazier-glenn-miller-in-his-own-words.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Was Kansas Shooting Avoidable?”


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