Editor’s Note: Defining Terrorism and Terrorists

As news unfolded in Colorado Springs on Friday involving a gunman shooting civilians and police officers, it led to a separate conversation on social media about the proper use of the words “terrorism,” “terrorist,” and “terror.”

After considering the definitions of these words (via Merriam-Webster, below), Colorado Pols has decided to enact an editorial change on this website. Any criminal act in the United States that meets the definition of “terrorism” will henceforth be discussed on this site as a “terrorist act” perpetrated by one or more “terrorists.” 

For example, the man who killed and wounded several civilians and police officers in Colorado Springs will be classified as a “terrorist” rather than the generic “gunman” or “shooter” label. Terrorism is a very real and tragic form of violence that is undertaken for a specific political or intimidation purpose. Terrorism is not defined by skin color, nationality, race, or gender. It is a disservice to the victims of these particular crimes to continue to describe the act as something other than terrorism, just as it would be wrong to falsely classify a “murder” as a “suicide.”

Merriam-Webster definitions:

TERRORISM (noun):  the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.

TERRORIST: (adjective or noun)

TERROR (noun): 

1.  a state of intense fear


a : one that inspires fear : scourge
b : a frightening aspect
c : a cause of anxiety : worry
d : an appalling person or thing; especially : brat

3. reign of terror

4. violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands



14 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Chickenheed says:

    Good. Terrorism is an act, not a set of beliefs.

  2. DavidThi808 says:

    How about you wait to find out why first? If it was because it is Planned Parenthood then yes, very good idea.

    But if it turns out to be an ex employee upset about being fired or a case of a husband going after his (ex) wife – those are both awful but they're not terrorism.

    • Diogenesdemar says:

      Because he wouldn't be trying to terrorize his ex-wife or ex-employer?

    • gaf says:

      Really, David. Did you even read the Pols explanation? If the act meets the definition, they will call it that. The reason for the act has nothing to do with whether or not it meets the definition.

      • Old Time Dem says:

        The reason very definitely is part of whether a criminal act is also an act of terrorism.   A person shooting up a nightclub because he wasn't admitted is not terrorism because it is not "systematic;"  instead, it is to further an individual idiosyncratic goal.

        The gray area is a lone-wolf type criminal who may have been influenced by, and sees himself acting on behalf of, a political ideology but is not actually associated with any particular group.  Let's say the CS killer turns out to be a card-carrying, dues-paying member of Operation Rescue.  He's probably a terrorist under any reasonable definition of the term.  But what if he's just become unhinged by reading anti-PP propaganda without ever having communicated with anyone else.  Terrorist?  Maybe, but only because the crime is politically motivated–so, again, it comes down to the reason for the act.


      • BlueCat says:

        The reason has everything to do with it. Unless you see every shooting, every murder as an act of terrorism in which case there's no need for the word at all.

    • Suthers won't say it officially, but he says we can imply something from the location.

      I'd say he's heard it's terrorism. This ought to be an interesting trial…

  3. Diogenesdemar says:

    I get that it might not be a bad idea to point out the double standards with which those terms have had common, general application  

    But, honestly, I don't know — those terms pretty much lost all meaning for me fourteen years ago when Cheny/Bush/FOX/et al started tossing them around so loosely at any target they didn't like, or had issues with. 

    Those terms, or the lack of the application of those terms, doesn't make despicable any more, or less, despicable  for me. 

  4. MADCO says:


    But just so we are all clear- the terrorist's religion, declared, affiliated or apparent only matters if he is Muslim. Or black separatist Christian. 

    Or maybe Jewish – “Judeo-Christian” is ok. Or maybe Jewish – “Judeo-Christian” is ok ish.

  5. Davie says:

    The dictionary definition isn't complete.  I would assert that there is the additional element of provoking terror to achieve an ideological purpose or goal.  In this case obviously to frighten away or intimidate clients and workers of Planned Parenthood.  

    From news reports, it was a 59 year old bearded white guy. Just your average off his rocker Christian militia type.  Since he decided that this wasn't going to be suicide by cop today, at least we should learn what or who inspired his wanton murder spree.

    • James Dodd says:

      You're right, Davie. I don't know why Colorado Pols failed to quote the definition of terrorism set out in the link he provided but let me do that for ya'll:

      Terrorism: the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.

      We must be careful when we throw around this term.  A mass killing in a simple bank robbery is not terrorism.  It may well be terrifying, but it is not terrorism.

      If it turns out that this guy targeted Planned Parenthood in an effort to stop them from doing their work (as I suspect), then he is a terrorist.  Maybe, this time, the criminal justice system will prosecute a white, male Christian for terrorism.  I won't hold my breath. 

      • FrankUnderwood says:

        Maybe, this time, the criminal justice system will prosecute a white, male Christian for terrorism.

        In El Paso County no less. If he goes to trial, jury selection should be interesting……to put it mildly. And then there will be the question of whether the DA goes for the death penalty. 

  6. The realist says:

    If I had been present for this horrific act, I'm quite sure I would have been terrorized.

    Thanks for this.


  7. JohnInDenver says:

    Congressional Research Service has a pretty clear definition in a document "The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress."

    “… domestic terrorism. First, the Code of Federal Regulations characterizes “terrorism” as including “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  5 28 C.F.R. §0.85.

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