(updated below)

A gunman yesterday attacked two military sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S Marines. Before anything was known about the suspect other than his name — Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez — it was instantly and widely declared by the U.S. media to be “terrorism.” An FBI official announced at a press briefing: “We will treat this as a terrorism investigation until it can be determined it was not.”

That “terrorism” in U.S. political and media discourse means little beyond “violence by Muslims against the West” is now too self-evident to debate (in this case, just the name of the suspect seemed to suffice to trigger application of the label). I’ve documented that point at length many times — most recently, a couple of weeks ago when the term was steadfastly not applied to the white shooter who attacked a black church in Charleston despite his clear political and ideological motives — and I don’t want to rehash those points here. Instead, I want to focus on a narrow question about this term: Can it apply to violent attacks that target military sites and soldiers of a nation at war, rather than civilians?

In common usage (as opposed to legal definitions), “terrorism” typically connotes, if not denotes, “violence against civilians.” If you ask most people why they regard the 9/11 attack as so singularly atrocious, you will likely hear that it was because the violence was aimed indiscriminately at civilians and at civilian targets. If you ask them to distinguish why they regard civilian-killing U.S. violence as legitimate and justified but regard the violence aimed at the U.S. as the opposite (“terrorism”), they’ll likely claim that the U.S. only kills civilians by accident, not on purpose. Whether one is targeting civilian versus military sites is a central aspect to how we talk about the justifiability of violence and what is and is not “terrorism.”

But increasingly in the West, violent attacks are aimed at purely military targets, yet are still being called “terrorism.” To this day, many people are indignant that Nidal Hasan was not formally charged with “terrorism” for his attack on the U.S. military base in Fort Hood, Texas (though he was widely called a “terrorist” by U.S. media reports). Last October in Canada — weeks after the government announced it would bomb Iraq against ISIS — a Muslim man waited for hours in his car in a parking lot until he saw two Canadian soldiers in uniform, and then ran them over, killing one; that was universally denounced as “terrorism” despite his obvious targeting of soldiers. Omar Khadr was sent to Guantanamo as a teenager and branded a “terrorist” for killing a U.S. soldier fighting the war in Afghanistan, during a firefight. One of the most notorious “terrorism” prosecutions in the U.S. — just brilliantly dissected by my colleague Murtaza Hussain — involved an alleged plot to attack the military base at Fort Dix. Trumpeted terror arrests in the U.S. now often involve plots against military rather than civilian targets. The 9/11 attack itself targeted the Pentagon in addition to the World Trade Center.

The argument that even attacks on military bases should be regarded as “terrorism” rests on the proposition that soldiers who are not actively engaged in combat when attacked are not legitimate targets. Instead, it is legitimate only to target them when engaging them on a battlefield. Under the law of war, one cannot, for instance, legally hunt down soldiers while they’re sleeping in their homes, or playing with their children, or buying groceries at a supermarket. Their mere status as “soldiers” does not mean it is legally permissible to target and kill them wherever they are found. It is only permissible to do so on the battlefield, when they are engaged in combat.

That argument has a solid footing in both law and morality. But it is extremely difficult to understand how anyone who supports the military actions of the U.S. and their allies under the “War on Terror” rubric can possibly advance that view with a straight face. The official framework that drives the West’s military behavior is the exact antithesis of that legal and moral standard. When it comes to justifying their own violence, the U.S. and their closest allies have spent the last 15 years, at least, insisting on precisely the opposite view.

The U.S. drone program constantly targets individuals regarded as “illegal combatants” and kills them without the slightest regard for where they are or what they are doing at that moment: at their homes, in their sleep, driving in a car with family members, etc. The U.S. often targets people without even knowing their names or identities, based on their behavioral “patterns”; the Obama administration literally re-defined “combatant” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone.”  The “justification” for all this is that these are enemy combatants and they therefore can be legitimately targeted and killed no matter where they are found or what they are doing at the time; one need not wait until they are engaged in combat or on a battlefield. The U.S. government has officially embraced that view.

Indeed, the central premise of the War on Terror always has been, and still is, that there is no such thing as a physically limited space called “the battlefield.” Instead, the whole world is one big, limitless “battlefield”: the “battlefield” is wherever enemy combatants are found. That means that the U.S. has codified the notion that one does not have to wait for a “combatant” to enter a designated battlefield and engage in combat; instead, he is a fair target for killing anywhere he is found.

The U.S.’s closest allies have long embraced the same mindset. The Israelis have used targeted assassination of the country’s enemies — killing them wherever they are found — for decades. They’ve murdered multiple Iranian scientists at their homes. They deliberately bombed the home of a Gazan police chief and killed 15 people inside. They previously killed 40 police trainees when bombing a police station. Just this week, my colleague Matthew Cole used NSA documents to prove that Israeli commandos in 2008 shot and killed a Syrian general while he hosted a dinner party at his seaside vacation home. This all is grounded in the view that one need not wait until one’s enemies enter a “battlefield” and engage in combat in order to kill them.

The question here about the Chattanooga shootings and similar attacks is not whether any or all of this is justified. The question is whether the term “terrorism” applies to such acts, and whether the term has any consistent meaning. To question whether something qualifies as “terrorism” quite obviously is not to say it is justifiable: All sorts of violence is wrong without being “terrorism.”

One could argue that attacks such as last night’s in Chattanooga count as “terrorism” despite targeting military sites because they are not carried out by states but rather by individuals or non-state actors. But that’s just another way of saying that the violence the U.S. engages in as part of the War on Terror is inherently justified and legitimate, while the violence engaged in by its declared enemies — non-state actors — never is. This is all about creating self-justifying double standards: Just imagine the outrage that would pour forth if Syria had sent a commando force to kill an American or Israeli general in his home.

And ultimately, that’s the real point here: The U.S. Government, its allies and their apologists constantly propagate standards that have no purpose other than to legitimize all of their violence while de-legitimizing all violence by their enemies in the “war” they have declared. Nothing is more central to that effort than the propagandistic invocation of the term “terrorism.” We’re now at the point where it is “terrorism” when enemies of the U.S. target American military bases and soldiers, but not “terrorism” when the U.S. recklessly engages in violence it knows will kill large numbers of civilians.

UPDATE: A tweet from CNN today:


If any enemy of the West ever made a similar claim, it would be denounced as an oxymoron.