What is Terrorism?

The recent massacre in Las Vegas claimed 58 people and injured hundreds more. This tragedy shook the nation. As the dust settled people began to search for answers, sanity, and meaning. How we interpret events of this nature is important not only for our collective narrative, but also to better understand and prevent future atrocities. Many began to call the perpetrator a terrorist. However not every massacre is an act of terrorism. This article creates a framework to better understand the differences in various types of massacres. It then further explains why a more careful and nuanced approach is useful. 

Terrorism is an act of violence targeting individuals that has a political, religious, or ideological goal. It implies that someone has an agenda. Its intention is to implement change, or to make a ideological statement. For example, targeting a political party or an opposing religious group.


A prototypical terrorist attack would be something like an act of violence in protest of a government. Such as bombing the capitol of a government you oppose, want to see change, or seek revenge on. One of the most well known terrorist groups in Canada were the FLQ. In the 1960s they committed acts of terrorism, such as public bombings and the kidnapping of government officials, in order to spread their message of Quebec separatism. They were organized rational actors and had an ideological agenda.

In modern North America and Europe, Islamic extremism is the most prolific form of terrorism. Islamic extremists use violence to express their personal interpretation of Islam and to rebel against those that they see as outsiders or “infidels”. Modern Islamic terrorists have specific beliefs and religious motives. They use terrorism as a means to achieve their goals.

On November 13th 2015 Paris was seized by violence orchestrated by an Islamic State cell. Bombings and shootings engulfed the city and by the end 130 victims lost their lives. This was a textbook terrorist attack. They had an agenda, were rational actors, and were guided by religious and political objectives.

But not all massacres are terrorism.

Some massacres are caused by people “snapping”. Individuals suffering from mental disorders could have episodes of mass violence in which they may not even be aware of their actions or consequences. Psychosis could lead a person to commit an atrocity without having any coherent rationale, motive, or intention.

A person who loses their sanity and opens fire in a movie theatre is not committing terrorism. There was no tangible goal or ideological motive behind the violence. It was violence caused by an underlying mental condition such as psychosis. There was no real reason they did it.

Alternatively some attackers, such as serial killers, may have an addiction or compulsion to commit violence. A person of this nature does not kill people due to a psychotic breakdown, due to a political motive, or due to a religious belief, but rather because they either enjoy doing it, or feel compelled to do so. This is also not terrorism. They are not looking to make a statement, or trying to implement change, they are just killing because they want to, or feel they need to.

After the 2012 massacre in Aurora, Colorado, Justin Holmes’ court case centered around his mental health. Holmes confessed to the shooting but pleaded not guilty due to insanity.  Mental health is integral to determining the severity of punishment and whether the prosecuted will be institutionalized. Whether an assailant was conscious of their actions and consequences is central to their legal proceedings.

As you can imagine there is overlap between the distinctions. Sometimes it’s pretty clear that the attacker was sane and had an agenda. Other times it’s obvious that the person lost their mind and may not even realize what they had done. However in many cases it isn’t that straight forward. Religious acts of violence can be particularly challenging to categorize. A person might claim that they were doing God’s work but actually were just hearing voices caused by a brain tumour. While another suicide bomber might seem insane but was actually just following a careful and fundamentalist interpretation of a religious text and belief system. Identifying a person’s motive and state of mental health is difficult and at times even impossible.

One problem that people have pointed out is that we are quick to judge attacks by brown people as terrorism and white people as failures in mental health. You can notice this especially in early news reporting shortly after an attack.

This is partially understandable due to our contemporary geopolitical climate and due to groups like the Islamic State leading visible organized terrorism. When an individual in Paris intentionally drives a car into a marketplace crowd it is unfortunate, but reasonable, to expect some jihadi sentiment. Because of this reality presuppositions are often made.

When a white man commits a mass shooting in the US the potential motives are more diverse. America has mass shootings at a shocking regularity but why each occurred varies greatly. Some are motivated by racial sentiments, or political grievances, while others are triggered by mental disorders and delusions. In the US there isn’t one typical reason for violence and so people are less quick to assume that it is terrorism. Mental health enters the conversation more early on. This is still however a bias that we need to account for.

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Many people become frustrated at the media response in the early stages of a violent attack. Biases and racial prejudices can at times cloud legitimate analysis and honest reflection.

Our quickness to judge without having the full story can be harmful and counterproductive. Many Islamic terrorists are sane and motivated by beliefs and ideas. However it is naive to assume that none of them have mental health problems and that none of the threats can be solved by using a proactive mental health approach targeting vulnerable candidates and alienated Muslim youth. It is dangerous to assume all violence caused by Muslims is simply terrorism and it is foolish to assume that all massacres caused by white Americans can be explained away by mental illness. Each episode of mass violence needs to be judged and analyzed on its own, within its own context.


Knowing if a massacre is caused by a mental breakdown, by a serial killer, or by an ideological motive is essential to understanding and preventing future attacks. Knowing why massacres are happening is crucial to knowing how to stop them. If the violence is seemingly random, or influenced primarily by mental disorders, the appropriate proactive measures need to be implemented to reduce these outbursts. Such as better mental health awareness and training or with legislative policy such as better vetting for firearm sales. If the problem is due to a specific terrorist cell targeting a religious or ethnic group, then the strategies to reduce the violence will be very different. This can include programs to reduce youth radicalization, tightening immigration, restricting access to terrorist recruiting tools, infiltrating dangerous political groups, the surveillance of potential threats, and many more tangible strategy decisions. Different actions plans are required for the different types of massacres and therefor categorizing and defining them correctly is important. However this is not always simple, or even achievable.

As Las Vegas searches for closure we still lack an answer as to why he did it. There was no clear motive. He did not align with any dangerous political or religious group and did not seem to harbour any ideological motivation. This was not, as far as we can tell, a terrorist attack. Whether his mental health was the cause we may never know. Conclusive answers while comforting are not always possible. We may never understand his mind, but for us to move on, we may not need to. The world is a complicated mess, but in the face of tragedy, we humans always overcome.


By Daniel Govedar (Published Oct 2 2017, Edited Feb 12 2018)

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