Impact on community clear: Austin bombings were acts of terror

Let’s call this what it was: Austin was the target of a terrorist attack.

Some officials have shied away from branding the recent bombings as terrorism — even as the string of explosions in Austin killed two people and injured five others in attacks that targeted people for no apparent reason, striking fear in neighborhoods across the city. While condemning these heinous acts, though, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted Tuesday in a Tweet: “There is no apparent nexus to terrorism at this time.”

We are still trying to grasp what motivated Mark A. Conditt, the bombing suspect who died early Wednesday morning as police closed in on him in Round Rock. The early indications are that he acted alone, driven more by “challenges in his personal life,” Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said, than by any political agenda. Conditt left a 25-minute confession on his cell phone, Manley said, and “his comments were not at all reflective of either a hate-based or terrorism-based approach to what he did.”

Facing blowback for those characterizations, Manley later told KVUE that “This man created terror in our community by his actions, undoubtedly.”

We agree. There is no mistaking the fear these attacks inflicted on an entire city.

That makes this terrorism.

RELATED: Bomber is dead, but case not over with many questions that linger

Austinites are too resilient for panic, too inclusive to shun each other out of fear. But for the past few weeks, we have been a city on edge. We understood the next attack could occur anywhere, strike anyone. In the span of eight days, more than 1,200 calls of suspicious packages poured into the Austin Police Department, in some instances putting neighborhoods on lockdown and prompting evacuations of stores.

“Whatever you call it, technically under federal law or anything, it is clearly a terrorist act,” University of Texas police chief David Carter, an APD alum, told The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday. “It has accomplished what the terrorist wants to accomplish — to cause people fear.”

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R- Austin, described the serial bombing as “three weeks of unruly terror.” And U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, noted the investigation drew hundreds of federal agents, “one of the biggest (federal responses) since the Boston (Marathon) bombings.”

The FBI and other agencies subscribe to a narrow legal definition of terrorism that doesn’t always square with a community’s experience in an attack like this, certainly not with Austin’s. Many have asked on social media why a bomber who targeted members of the public hasn’t been branded as a terrorist.

Federal codes define terrorism as unlawful acts of violence, driven by a political or social agenda, designed to pressure a government or group of people. But more specific definitions vary between agencies and remain a source of debate.

POLITIFACT: What’s the definition of ‘terrorism’?

Some officials and legal scholars have resisted broadening the definition of terrorism to include events such as the mass shootings at the Sutherland Springs church or the Las Vegas country music concert, which involved lone actors who lacked a political motive or a desire to attack the government.

Their concerns are rooted in the law: If statutes were expanded to prosecute domestic attackers as terrorists, the federal government would find itself trampling citizens’ Constitutional rights in ways that, for better or worse, they are free to do with suspects tied to foreign enemies. That’s because the anti-terrorism laws beefed up after 9/11 allow the feds to conduct surveillance on foreign terrorism suspects without a warrant, hold those suspects without charges in military prisons and prosecute people based on their support of a group deemed to be anti-American. We wholeheartedly agree those tactics should not be turned on the American people.

But we also recognize the difference between the letter of the law and the everyday language used to describe events. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are widely considered terrorists, for example, even though their criminal convictions were for charges like conspiracy and using weapons of mass destruction — not terrorism. Nonetheless, the horrific impact of their attacks, which wounded entire communities, earned that label.

AUSTIN BOMBINGS: Click here for complete coverage

Since 9/11, the term terrorism predominantly has been used to describe attacks with jihadist intent, compounding the stereotyping of people of color or the Islamic faith while failing to properly recognize domestic terrorism threats as such. This narrow reading of terrorism can have real consequences: As we’ve noted in the case of the Austin bomber, the Austin Police Department’s early decision to treat the first explosion as an isolated homicide, rather than explore the possibility the use of a bomb might signal larger intentions, preempted certain investigative paths and gave the public a false sense of security.

All told, the Austin bomber’s vicious devices took the lives of a beloved father, Anthony Stephan House, 39, and budding musician Draylen Mason, 17. Mason’s mother, Shamika Wilson, was injured in the second explosion, while the next two bombs wounded Esperanza Herrera, 75, and Will Grote and Colton Mathes, both in their mid-20s. A SWAT officer was injured in the final blast that Conditt detonated as officers surrounded him.

RELATED: How to help the victims of the Austin bombings

The first three explosions happened in East Austin neighborhoods where many African Americans and Latinos live, sending fear through the city’s minority communities and sparking concerns these could be racially-motivated attacks. To many Austinites, there is no question that they were. The anxiety spread as the next bomb was activated by a trip wire along the sidewalk of a Southwest Austin neighborhood, where two white men were injured. Two more package bombs surfaced at FedEx facilities.

The victims and their families have paid the deepest price for the bomber’s cruel attacks, and they deserve the community’s embrace through the difficult months ahead. But this case goes beyond murder and assault. These attacks were designed to terrorize an entire city, and we need to call this by its proper name: terrorism.

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