Rhetoric of Terrorism


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Future posts will focus on gender, religion, race and ethnicity, the role played by federal informants in sentencing, denaturalization as a response to terrorism,  deciphering the distinction between hate crimes and other forms of bias-motivated violence, and a host of other topics. Stay tuned!


This week, I researched the 2016 Malheur Wildlife Refuge Occupation outside Burns, Oregon. A large group of armed militants took control over the federally-owned land through intimidation and threats, and preceded to occupy the refuge for over a month (Levin, 2016). Though the occupiers did not injure or kill anyone, this was not a victimless crime; federal employees at the refuge were unable to do their jobs for a month, local schools were shut down for a week, and the expansive police response cost Oregonian taxpayers a conservative estimate of $3 million (Levin, 2016).

I read twenty-two news articles and two court documents while researching this case; not once was the word “terrorist” used to describe the occupiers. 

The FBI defines a “federal crime of terrorism” as “an offense that is: (i) calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion or to retaliate against government conduct; and (ii) is a violation of federal statute” (Federal, 2008). The Malheur occupiers inhibited the federal government’s ability to operate at the refuge for over a month through armed intimidation, which constitutes as terrorism according to the FBI’s definition. So why were the occupiers never described as terrorists?

I do not have a conclusive answer, but I suspect the word “terrorist” was never used because all but one of the twenty-six arrested occupiers were white, Christian, American-born citizens. They were anti-government ideologues, not “jihadists”. The perpetrators were described as “activists,” “occupiers,” and “militiamen” throughout the articles surveyed while researching the case. None of these words really evoke  the sense of fear and havoc that the occupiers instilled in the Burns, Oregon community. None of these words reflect the fact that the occupation falls under the FBI’s definition of a federal crime of terrorism.

The tempered rhetoric used to describe the Malheur occupiers reflects a phenomenon I have come across during my research where white, anti-government perpetrators are rarely described as terrorists. They are portrayed in the media as patriots who love their country, but fear their government. At worst, they are characterized as erratic, mentally unstable gun-lovers. But rarely terrorists.

My involvement with the Prosecution Project has taught me that language and rhetoric have the power to shape how our team and the public understand terrorism and political violence. Rhetoric shapes cultural attitudes, and cultural attitudes shape can sometimes shape how crimes of political violence are charged and sentenced. I worry that if we use terms like “activist” and “lone wolf” to describe violent perpetrators who terrorize Americans and try to hold the American government hostage, sentencings for crimes like the Malheur occupation will be reduced and the rule of law will become diluted.

As I move forward with the project, I hope to move beyond anecdotal evidence and use statistical analysis to better understand the correlation between ideology, race, religion, and sentencing outcomes.

– Nikki Gundimeda


Works Cited

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2008, December 16). Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. Retrieved from  https://vault.fbi.gov/FBI%20Domestic%20Investigations%20and%20Operations%20Guide%20%28DIOG%29/fbi-domestic-investigations-and-operations-guide-diog-2013-version/FBI%20Domestic%20Investigations%20and%20Operations%20Guide%20%28DIOG%29%202013%20Version%20Part%2001%20of%2001/at_download/file

Levin, S. (2016, February 24). How much did the Oregon standoff cost taxpayers? Millions, says early estimates. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/24/oregon-militia-standoff-cost-more-than-3-million-taxpayer-fbi

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