White bomber in Austin was a 'terrorist,' police chief says amid criticism over labeling of suspect

Austin Bombings
This undated photo from a Facebook posting shows Mark Anthony Conditt, who authorities say terrorized the Austin, Texas, area with a series of bombings this month.

The young white man behind a string of bombings that killed two people and injured four others this month in central Texas was a “domestic terrorist,” the city’s interim police chief acknowledged Thursday.

Chief ­Brian Manley had avoided that label last week when he called Mark Anthony Conditt “very challenged,” but not a terrorist. Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) had also faced criticism for saying Conditt was “disturbed” but that the the bombings were “not terror-related.”

On social media, debate flared about whether Conditt would have been called a terrorist had he not been white. Some said the way he was described reflected white privilege.

In his comments last week, Manley said Conditt had not mentioned terrorism or hate in a video confession. Investigators initially believed Conditt was targeting people of color, given that the first three victims — two of whom died — were black or Hispanic. Two white men were then injured when another bomb exploded alongside a road.

What exactly may have motivated Conditt remains unknown.

A similar debate about the labeling of suspects unfolded last year after authorities described the killing of eight people who were run over by a truck in New York City as “terrorism,” but not the slaying of 58 people who were shot at a concert in Las Vegas.

In New York, the suspect was an Uzbek immigrant and allegedly inspired by the Islamic State. In Las Vegas, the suspect was white and without a clear ideology or motive.

The Huffington Post detailed the difference in the labeling of suspects:

Federal prosecutors have wide latitude to go after individuals who affiliate with designated foreign terrorist organizations, a list mostly filled with radical Islamic groups. Pretty much any behavior in support of a designated foreign terrorist organization ― [including] retweeting tweets or reblogging GIFs on Tumblr ― can count as “material support” and trigger a federal terrorism charge.

 

On the other hand, domestic extremists ― radical militias, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc. ― enjoy wide protection under the First Amendment and can face federal terrorism charges only if they engage in particular kinds of activity, e.g., hijacking an airplane, seizing control of an Amtrak train or using a weapon of mass destruction. There are plenty of violent acts ― including mass shootings and running down people with a car ― that aren’t specifically covered under federal anti-terrorism laws.

The debate about race extends to victims, too. News organizations were quick to forget that the Las Vegas massacre was not, in fact, the deadliest mass shooting, or mass killing, in American history. As my colleague Valerie Russ pointed out:

Take the Wounded Knee Massacre, where at least 150 and possibly 300 Native American men, women, and children were killed in South Dakota in December 1890.

 

By the second day after the [Vegas] shootings, news organizations adjusted after two journalists associations reminded the media: Among other incidents, ‘More than 100 black people were killed in the East St. Louis Massacre in 1917.’