EgyptAir Hijacking and Our Weird Formulation on Terrorism


A man believed to be the hijacker of the EgyptAir Airbus A-32

Pictured: Not a terrorist. Image from AFP-Getty via BBC


Thankfully, the EgyptAir hijacking turned out to just be a guy with a fake suicide vest who may or may not have been distraught about a woman. This was handled with what I can only believe to be typical Cypriot humor.

Earlier, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades had responded to a reporter’s question about whether the hijacker was motivated by romance, by laughing and saying: “Always there is a woman involved.”

That aside, and the “troubling questions” about security we’re told the incident begs, there has been a strange formulation floating around all day. I first saw it in a Times “Morning Briefing”, but you’ve undoubtedly seen something similar. “A hijacker told the pilot he had explosives and threatened to detonate them, officials said, but he may have been motivated by personal factors, not terrorism.”

That’s an odd way to put it, and revealing. Yes, there were no political motivations, which of course means it isn’t terrorism. If he blew himself up, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone involved. Being killed is being killed. It’s the same kind of excuse we have in this country for being solemn for a few minutes after a mass shooting, telling each other that to talk about guns is to “politicize” it, and then going on our way- unless the shooter screams “Allah!” while pulling the trigger.

The San Bernardino shooters had no real connection to ISIS, no more than I do. They just were inspired by them, but there are a million factors that go into why someone decides to kill. They do it for any reasons, whether they are a recruit from Belgium or Adam Lanza or just someone who wants to pick a wolf costume and chooses ISIS, because it just happens to fit perfectly.

That’s why it is strange to say “motivated by personal factors”, and not terrorism. People join terrorist groups for personal factors, because they are angry or lost or feel small, and can be pushed over the edge from despair into inhuman violence by skilled recruiters and peer pressure. Some, yes, are just sociopaths or criminals, and a handful are true believers- but even among them, it is “personal factors”.

We treat terrorism as a free-floating evil, capitalizing the theological construct and applying it to humans, which weirdly robs people of their agency. We don’t see terrorism as an earthly phenomenon with earthly reasons, born from the same violent impluses that have led men to be wolf to men since they first realized that pain wasn’t something that was just felt- it could be inflicted.

Until we decide that we have to treat this as an actual human event, and not a mythological evil, there is no way to minimize its destructive power, or to lead people away. Saying “it’s not terrorism; it must just be a combination of sickness and desperation” is a perfect exercise in missing the point entiely.

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