Terrorism in the age of polarization

How Muslims feel after the Finsbury Park attack
How Muslims feel after the Finsbury Park attack

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Story highlights

  • Bergen: Recent attacks demonstrate that our westernized perception of terrorism is far too narrow in scope
  • We must recognize that terrorism comes in many shapes and forms, he says

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists."

(CNN)The attack early on Monday morning near a mosque in North London targeting Muslims who were celebrating the holy month of Ramadan reminds us that terrorism comes in many shapes and forms.

Because of the 9/11 attacks, the framing of terrorism by politicians, the media and the public too often in the past decade and a half has been that it is Islamist political violence that is the terrorism we need to be concerned about.
    Peter Bergen
    But a spate of recent attacks underline that this framing is too narrow in scope. The commonly accepted definition of terrorism is that it is politically motivated violence directed at civilians by entities other than a state. These kind of attacks can come from the far right, the far left, racists of every stripe, as well as jihadists.
    Monday's attack at the mosque in London, for instance, was clearly an act of anti-Muslim terrorism. A 48-year-old man was arrested after a van ploughed into worshippers near the mosque; one man was killed and 10 were hurt. British Prime Minister Theresa May called the attack "every bit as sickening" as the London Bridge and Manchester jihadist attacks. And London Mayor Sadiq Khan said anti-Muslim crimes have increased sharply since the London Bridge killings.
    Last week 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson III attacked congressional Republicans practicing baseball in Alexandria, Virginia, injuring five including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Hodgkinson was shot by police officers and died shortly after his attack.
    Hodgkinson was a rabid critic of President Trump who posted on Facebook: "Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It's Time to Destroy Trump & Co." Before he carried out his attack, Hodgkinson had asked two Republican congressmen who were at the baseball practice, Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan, if the players were Republicans or Democrats. Duncan said they were Republicans.
    Hodgkinson's attack was clearly an act of leftist terrorism.
    Two months ago, on April 18, in Fresno, California, Kori Ali Muhammad stalked three white men with a revolver before shooting and killing them. On social media, Muhammad had called white people "devils" and posted about black separatism. Muhammad's father told the Los Angeles Times that his son believed that he was part of conflict between blacks and whites and "a battle was about to take place."
    Muhammad's attack clearly was a terrorist attack motivated by racism.
    The reason that attacks by American terrorists who are not jihadist militants are sometimes not called "terrorism" is, in part, because in the United States terrorism is a crime which has to be in some way be associated with a "designated" terrorist group such as ISIS. These groups are designated by the U.S. State Department and are invariably foreign terrorist organizations.
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    Belonging to such a group is a crime in the United States, but because the First Amendment protects all kinds of hateful speech and ideas, neo-Nazi groups or other organizations based in the United States that espouse hateful views are not as a legal matter considered terrorist organizations, even if their adherents sometimes conduct acts that amount to terrorism.
    It is perhaps not surprising that in an age of polarization where anti-immigrant sentiment is strong in some Western countries and where political emotions run high (be it over "Brexit "in the United Kingdom or over President Trump in the United States) we are seeing acts of political violence emanating both from the far left and the far right. They come in addition to the attacks by jihadist militants -- which remain, of course, a very real concern.