Matt Yglesias has some solid commentary on Spencer Ackerman’s big scoop, but I think he misses some even solid-er commentary when he says:

But it does remind me of the puzzling metaphysics of terrorism. For the past decade, any time there’s a spree killing or the like in the West, the question is immediately asked, “Was it terrorism?” That always appears to mean, “Was the killer a Muslim.” Then we all have a big to-do on blogs about semantics. This seems to me to be the path down which a “counterterrorism unit” decides that its special mission is to train everyone to be super-suspicious of devout American Muslims.

The killing spree analogy, I think, is a good one. Let’s say some guy grabs a machine gun and kills 30 people. The question a lot of people want to ask is, “why?” And maybe “why” is “because they were convinced that aliens control the US government,” and maybe it’s “because they were an Islamic fundamentalist waging jihad against America due to various grievances.” But I think the answer doesn’t exactly matte because the question isn’t really right. The question we really want to be asking is “were they part of an organized group?” If they were a lone individual, no matter what their motive or what damage they did, once their action is complete and they are dead or in custody that’s the end of the story. The difference between Anders Brevik and the 9/11 hijackers wasn’t ideological, it was institutional; if we hadn’t proceeded to go after Al Queda they would have attacked us more. But Brevik is just one guy, and now he’s in jail for some years. If there was a well-funded, well-organized groups of anti-space alien terrorists we wouldn’t dismiss them because their beliefs are absurd.

Or think about it this way. We have limited resources to put towards “security” or prevent “terrorism;” ie, resources aimed at the prevention of deliberately destructive acts against life and property. We learned in the 60s and 70s that it was a good idea to put more resources towards securing the persons of important politicians as well as aircraft. But now you only have so many resources left over. And you could put those resources, towards, say, securing the heck out of government buildings. But then malevolent people or groups could also blow up buses, or Wal Marts, or grain silos, or power plants. But you could also say, “well, there are groups of violent people who are accumulating resources and organizing to persistently carry out damaging attacks against us” and instead devote resources to inhibiting and dismantling those groups.

Lone individuals are very hard to stop, but networks are vulnerable. We would probably be a lot safer if we targeted violent groups and then just secured the really important stuff, knowing that occasionally a lone violent individual for whatever reason is going to decide to do some violent stuff and will probably have some degree of success. We should focus less on whether acts are “terrorism” and more on what we can and should be preventing and how.