In the days since the Colorado shootings, commentators and politicians have started to liken James Holmes, the suspected killer, to a terrorist. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper did so twice yesterday morning — on NBC’s Meet the Press, and again on CNN’s State of the Union.
"In a funny way, this guy was a terrorist," said Hickenlooper on CNN. "He wasn't a terrorist in the sense of politics, but for whatever twisted reasons that we can barely even imagine, he wanted to create terror. He wanted to put fear into peoples' lives."
Whether or not a murderer is a terrorist is an issue often debated and left undecided. Anders Breivik, the far-right Norwegian accused of murdering 77 people one year ago yesterday, is often called a terrorist, even though he acted alone and killed his own countrymen. Joe Stack, the man who flew a plane into a Texas IRS building in 2010, is also sometimes remembered as a domestic terrorist, as is Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing that killed 168.
So is James Holmes a terrorist?
Anthony Lemieux is a social scientist who studies terrorism. He’s a professor at Emory University and at Georgia State University, and an investigator with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. While Lemieux says that certain aspects of the Aurora shooting fit the profile of a terrorist attack, he thinks that more information needs to surface to make anything definite.
"I think until we know more about the underlying motivation, to see if it really fits a more classic definition of the term, I think we still need to understand a little more that will fall out from these investigations," he says.
That Holmes appears to have been working alone, and not trying to further the cause of some ideology, does not disqualify him as a terrorist. "There's definitely the lone-wolf aspect of terrorism that we need to be concerned with," Lemieux says. "One of the challenges there is when people are operating individually, as [may be the case here], people are doing things that may not get the attention of authorities or law enforcement in a way that might if more people were involved."
For Lemieux, it's too early to state assertively that Holmes is a terrorist. "One of the things that really is important in understanding terrorism is getting at some of those underlying motivations — what is this violence purported to be about," he says. "Then we break it down further from there."