Deliberately killing people makes many wish to make distinctions, such as whether the killing was
• Legal or illegal;
• Targeting selected or random individuals;
• Of an isolated individual or part of a mass killing;
• A part of a mass killing that was large or small;
• Justified or not;
• Deserved or not;
• Brought on by collective or individual guilt of the victim(s);
• A result of an act of terrorism or of a government decision;
• A consequence of a program of terrorism or war;
• A consequence of aggression or defence by the victim(s) that died; and, last but not least,
• Brought about by a particular choice of weapon.
In a willful killing, all that matters to a given victim is the fact that the victim is dead and whether the death was mercifully quick (such as by an IED, or as by a bomb dropped from an air plane) or agonizingly slow (such as through a deliberate program for starvation or disease). The rest is a matter of scale and how we are being made to feel about the killing.
How the survivors feel about a willful killing is a consequence of news coverage, even propaganda, and of how well history if being created and kept alive (by the survivors, often only by the victorious). The feelings vary from indifference to outrage or intense grief. They depend on how close the survivors are or were to the killing. The intensity of the feelings vary with distance and time, ranging from the killing of a loved one in the presence of a survivor to the killing of strangers (often millions) in a far-off foreign country in a remote time.
Thus it comes, for example, that many Americans “remember” willful killings that were lynchings and took place before they were born but are unlikely to have ever even heard that during the Mongol invasion of Iraq in 1258 AD, of 40 million people who lived there and then, only half a million survived, and Mesopotamia turned into a desert. The desertification of much of Mesopotamia was a consequence of there not being sufficient survivors to maintain the system of qanats and canals used for irrigation that had made Mesopotamia fertile and thrive for more than a thousand years. It was a catastrophe from which neither Iraq nor Syria ever recovered.
Closer to the present, Americans remember the fatalities they suffered during their part of the Vietnam War; 58,300 U.S. military personnel are remembered well in the US. It is not mentioned much in the US that close to 3.5 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians died during the participation of the US, or that for the Vietnamese the participation of the US was only the culmination of a war that lasted about 30 years and had begun with the Japanese invasion, resulted in the expulsion of the French from Indochina and finally came to an end after the Americans, too, removed themselves. Far more Vietnamese remember their casualties than Americans do or care to.
Some people kill, most – by far – don’t. The scale of the killing that some do varies, but killing on an industrial, massive or even catastrophic scale takes place only when governments organize it and make an effort to put much or all of their resources into play to make it happen. To label killings as being motivated by terrorism has often been an incentive for governments to engage in the launching of programs for the systematic killing of people on a large scale.
So, be careful. Labeling the killing done by a deranged individual an act of terrorism can well serve as an incentive for a government to engage in something far worse, under the guise or the hope that the government will help.