Eric Zorn asks an interesting question:

“It’s common these days to refer to former Weather Underground radical William Ayers as a one-time ‘domestic terrorist.’  Was he?”

Not to be the Dan Savage of the ethics of violence, but: yes! Here’s why, using Zorn’s own argument (normally I don’t like using most of a writer’s post, but here it seems necessary, because I don’t want to take anything important out of context)

“To me, a terrorist is one who attempts to create malleable fear in a population through random acts of mayhem; someone who uses his own amoral unpredictability to magnify the power he is attempting to exert in an effort to create change.

“Someone who bombs an abortion clinic or animal-research facility, say, in the middle of the night is not a terrorist, by this definition, because the purpose is not to prompt employees or clients to fear for their safety.

“Someone who bombs an abortion clinic or animal-research facility in the middle of day is a terrorist, by this definition, because the purpose is to prompt  fear not only among employees and clients of that clinic, but among employees and clients of other clinics.

Put another way, terrorists want to take innocent lives; violent guerrilla protesters (if that’s the best way to say it) don’t.”

Here’s the first problem: “terrorists want to take innocent lives” is “put a different way” from “attempts to create malleable fear” because it is different.

The first does not equal the second, because you don’t have to try or want to kill to create malleable fear. Try burning a cross if you don’t believe me. So which is terrorism? If a terrorist has to want to kill to be a terrorist, that simplifies things quite a bit and we can all go home.

But I’m still inclined to accept his first definition; in other words, to say that the desire or attempt to kill is irrelevant to the term or concept terrorism (it’s not irrelevant legally, obviously, and perhaps not morally). 

Terrorism differs from war, in part, because one side is not trying to use overwhelming force or attrition to subdue the other side–in other words, a terrorist could never, at least with the going technology, threaten all of us. But a terrorist can threaten every one of us. If a terrorist struck the CTA, it’s likely that a very small percentage of the city would be hurt or killed. But almost all of us could be killed. 

That’s the actual weapon of terrorism: fear. And fear isn’t logical. A weapon is logical–a bomb can do only one predictable thing in one place. Fear can do unpredictable things in any place. If intent follows the bullet, intent follows fear, and fear can go a lot more places.

So to not be a terrorist, Ayers would have to convince me that it’s somehow plausible that blowing up buildings, offices, and police cars is unlikely to make people afraid. Whether or not Ayers tried very hard not to kill people doesn’t mean that people weren’t afraid that they were going to be killed. And that might mean Ayers wasn’t a killer, and bully for him, but I don’t think it means he wasn’t a terrorist.

PS: I think this is the tell, which Zorn gives too much credence to: “Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond.” Destroying draft files? That’s precise. Bombing? It’s simply too much of a threat; fear can’t be precise.

Update: By the way, Jon Stewart, Ayers teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Get it right, America. I might want to run for president some day; don’t screw it up for me.