What makes Woolwich an act of terrorism?


Scenes of Crime Officers at the scene in Woolwich following a major incident in which a man was killed, on May 22, 2013 in London, England. It has been reported that the government and police are treating the attack in Woolwich on a serving soldier as a possible terrorist attack. Police have confirmed that one man has died after being attacked in the street by two men and firearms and knives were involved in the incident.


Dan Kitwood

As the media and the international community express outrage over the slaying of a British soldier in a vicious knife attack in Woolwich on Wednesday, another stabbing case is getting a second look.

Mohammed Saleem, the father of seven children, was stabbed three times in the back after leaving a mosque in Small Heath, Birmingham, late last month. 

The knife attack on the elderly Pakistani man was being reconsidered as a hate crime, according to The Guardian, but did not receive nearly the amount of media attention as Woolwich.

But what makes some attacks high-profile, while others fade into the background? When, and how, does the word "terrorism" get inserted into the story?

Merriam-Webster defines "terror" as "violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands."

But defining something as an "act of terror" is tricky business — and a task that some international media prefer to leave to government authorities.

In March 2007, the United Kingdom commissioned a report on how to define it.

There was specific discussion in the report over the inclusion of "religious motivation" in the defining of terrorist acts, and the report concluded that those motives, along with "racial or ethnic causes," should have a clear place in the umbrella definition of terror. 

The Woolwich attack is being understood as allegedly motivated by Islamic extremism, according to bystanders who witnessed the brutal killing of off-duty soldier Drummer Rigby.

“We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” said a man identified as Adebolajo in a video taken by a passer-by after the attack. “You people will never be safe.”

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald took a different stance. In his Thursday column, headlined "Was the London killing of a British soldier 'terrorism'?" he argued that the term is too highly politicized and propagandized to have any coherent definition — that it "pack(s) the political, cultural and emotional punch" that few words can, and thus, we should be weary of its use.

"Put another way, the term at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states," he wrote, after soliciting thoughts about the term's definition on Twitter.

In the Birmingham case, which unlike Woolwich didn't make international headlines, the motive of racial hatred is being looking at as "a significant line of inquiry," Detective Superintendent Mark Payne of West Midlands told The Guardian

Of course, the definition of the word "terror" depends largely on who is using it, and their motivations. US President Obama, for instance, used the word in his response to the UK murder. 

"The United States stands resolute with the United Kingdom, our ally and friend, against violent extremism and terror," Obama said. 

Then again, America's post-9/11 Patriot Act is one of the broadest definitions of terrorism out there, calling terrorism "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." 

What do you think constitutes a reasonable definition of "terrorism"? Should the word be used to describe the Woolwich attack? Let us know in the comments.