Although the wave of fear caused by Austin bomber Mark Anthony Conditt subsided after he took his life with one of his own bombs as police closed in on him, a great deal of debate continues over whether he should be labeled a terrorist. Unfortunately, this is a controversy that arises nearly every time there is a case of mass violence in which the perpetrator did not have an affiliation with, or act in support of, a terrorist organization.
In the Austin case, Conditt left a lengthy recording in which he reportedly confessed to the bombing spree and even outlined how he constructed each of the devices he deployed. However, what he did not provide in that message was any indication of motive based on ideology, hate or politics. In fact, according to an account of the recording published by the Austin American-Statesman, authorities have noted that Conditt felt no remorse for the killings, describing himself as a psychopath.
The fact that Conditt's first three bombs killed or wounded four members of racial minority groups led many (including myself) to initially suspect that the bombing campaign was being conducted by a white supremacist. However, the fact that his fourth bomb was planted in an area of the city populated mostly by white residents (two of whom were hurt) and that at least one of the bomb-laden parcels he shipped via FedEx was being sent to a white woman show that Conditt was not targeting minorities exclusively. Before he was stopped, Conditt was also reportedly searching addresses in Cedar Park, a predominantly white Austin suburb, to find more victims. After the first three explosions, many people ascribed an anti-minority motive to Conditt's actions, and it has been difficult for some to abandon that theory.
The bottom line is that despite the fact that a white bomber killed two people who were racial minorities and wounded two others, there is no evidence to suggest that this was a hate crime or an act of domestic terrorism. It is quite possible to terrorize a city without being a terrorist, which brings us to the key question: Just what is terrorism?
The Nature of Terrorism
At its heart, terrorism is a form of communication — violence that sends a message. As I've written before, early terrorism proponents like anarchist Johann Most considered terrorism to be a powerful form of propaganda. Most famously, he referred to terrorism as "propaganda of the deed."
Violence has always been a part of the human condition, and communities of people have frequently been terrorized by the application of violence: consider the terror created by Viking raiders, the Mongol hordes or various waves of Hunnish conquest. However, by definition, terrorism is a specific type of violence that is applied for a specific political purpose, usually to express opposition to a government, or the policies of that government.
For example, the anarchists who invented the modern concept of terrorism in the Victorian Era sought to overthrow both monarchies and capitalist democracies and attacking royalty, industrialists and even assassinating U.S. President William McKinley. Since then, a wide variety of anarchist, Marxist and Maoist groups have practiced terrorism in an attempt to foment revolution and overthrow regimes. A variety of nationalist and separatist groups, like the Irish Republican Army and the Basque ETA, have also used terrorism in pursuit of their independence.
Within the United States, in addition to anarchist terrorism, there is also a modest history of Marxist terrorism by groups seeking to cause an uprising to overthrow the U.S. government, or force the United States to grant independence to Puerto Rico. There has also been a long, bloody history of white supremacist terrorism in the United States that involved groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Order, and the Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord. Among other things, white supremacist terrorist groups have sought to oppress minorities, inspire a race war and overthrow the U.S. government. Indeed, until the 9/11 attacks, the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
There is a narrative currently circulating that white males are never considered terrorists, only Muslims are, but for the life of me I don't understand how people who lived through the Oklahoma City bombing, the hunt for serial bomber and domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph or the investigation, trial and execution of white supremacist serial murderer Joseph Paul Franklin could ever buy that narrative. Even more recently, white supremacist Buford Furrow was charged with terrorism after a 1999 shooting spree and Jerad and Amanda Miller thought they could spark a revolution against the United States by murdering police officers in June 2014.
As I've said before, it is entirely possible to terrorize a city — or even a country — without being a terrorist.
Now, in some cases, even where there is a political motive for a killing, it is simply easier to charge a suspect with capital murder than it is to attempt to prove the elements required for terrorism. Federal terrorism charges can also be difficult in cases where the person who carries out an attack is not tied to a designated terrorist organization. This was the case with Mir Amal Kansi, who murdered two CIA employees and injured several others in a shooting at a gate to the CIA compound in January 1993. He was tried and executed on state capital murder charges in Virginia.
But additionally, while the Patriot Act provided a definition for domestic terrorism as:
an attempt to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."
There simply is no domestic terrorism law, and no one can be charged under federal terrorism statutes unless they are linked to a designated terrorist organization. State terrorism laws vary widely, and some states do have the ability to charge someone with terrorism, even if there was no political or ideological motive.
However, this does not mean that federal prosecutors go easy on domestic terrorist subjects, even when they are white. Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was sentenced to death in January 2017 after being convicted on a 33-count federal indictment, including nine counts of using a firearm to commit murder and 24 civil-rights violations. Federal prosecutors went forward with the capital case against Roof despite the fact that he had pleaded guilty to murder charges in state court and was handed nine consecutive life sentences.
I am certain that if there was evidence that Conditt conducted his bombing spree for some ideological motive that the federal, state and local government would have shared that information with the public. Considering that he's dead, there would be very little reason to hide such information.
As I've noted, it is possible to terrorize a city or even a country without being a terrorist. Some notable examples of this include David Burkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer who terrorized New York for more than a year in the 1970s; the "Zodiac Killer" who operated in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s; Jack the Ripper in Victorian London; and George Metesky, the "Mad Bomber" who conducted a spree of deadly bombings in New York that lasted 16 years in the 1940s and 1950s. In 2017, Stephen Paddock conducted what was perhaps the deadliest lone, armed attack on U.S. soil ever when he murdered 58 people in Las Vegas, but he did not appear to be driven by politics or ideology. This is an important point: Despite the severity of his crime, Paddock's attack highlights that the classification of a crime as terrorism is not based on its scale, but rather on the intent behind it. What propaganda of the dead was Paddock attempting to create? Indeed there have been several far less spectacular attacks — and even many failed attacks - that have been properly labeled as terrorism because of the attacker's political or ideological motive or affiliation with or support of a terrorist group.
Until evidence surfaces that proves otherwise, Conditt is merely the latest in a long line of twisted people who sought to kill and terrorize for a reason other than terrorism.