The recent attacks in Woolwich were classified almost immediately as terrorism. The Guardian live news stream below contains no fewer than 16 references to terrorism. This is probably justified, though contrasts horribly with the rather muted reaction to an attack on a mosque in the last few days.
The line between a brutal murder and a terrorist incident is no doubt blurred, but our eagerness to classify such incidents as terror when they are committed by Muslims is telling. A mosque in Grimsby was attacked with petrol bombs, yet the only references to terrorism in the article below are when the author worries that attacking mosques might increase Islamic terrorism. Why is a bombing not a terrorist incident when committed by white extremists?
The same contrast is also painfully obvious in the United States. When young, alienated white men are accused of mass murders, it is a gun control issue, not an idealogical one. When the same occurs with Muslims – as in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers – it is immediately classed as “terrorism” without knowledge of a motive.
Terrorism implies some kind of crime against society. There are direct, individual victims and their families, but their exact identities are irrelevant to the attackers – their real interest is provoking fear in a wider population via their acts of violence on a relatively small number of people, compared to that wider population.
I find it chilling that we immediately consider attacks by Muslims to be terrorism, but we do not consider attacks on Muslims to be terrorism. This suggests to me that our society is implicitly acting as though some minority groups are not actually part of society at large. We would consider an attack by Muslims on a church to be terrorism, yet not attacks on a mosque by those raised in, at least nominally, a Christian society to be so.
This disconnect, rejection and alienation from wider society could well be a major driver of terrorism itself.