Devin Kelley and Kevin Neal Are Domestic Terrorists

Does it really matter what we call the mass shooting in Texas that killed 26 people and wounded many more? Or what we call the shooting in Rancho Tehama Reserve that killed 5 and wounded 10 people? Quite simply, a resounding “yes.” What we name something affects how we understand that action and what makes it possible. If we have a clearer understanding of what makes an action possible, we have a better sense of how we might prevent it. For these reasons, I submit we should call Devin Kelley (Sutherland Springs shooting) and Kevin Neal (Rancho Tehama shooting) domestic terrorists.

In using the term, “domestic terrorist,” I am not appealing to the Patriot Act that defines domestic terrorism as an “attempt to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” In this context, “domestic” means in reference to the United States. An act of domestic terrorism is perpetrated within the United States and the government is the ultimate target though individuals or particular groups of people are most surely the most direct victims. I really don’t believe the US government was the target of Kelley’s and Neals attacks. Furthermore, neither Kelley nor Neal has been linked to any one of the sixty foreign terrorist group declared by the US State department, which is a necessary condition for an act to be domestic terrorism.

Everything about these attacks was home grown, and that exactly why we need to call their actions “domestic terrorism.”

By “domestic,” I mean what many would call the home. Kelley’s violence had a home in his interpersonal relationships. His violence created a sense of terror for his intimates and neighbors.  Kelley’s actions at the Sutherland Springs Baptist church are an extension of the violence that he perpetrated on his first wife and step-son, his second wife, perhaps other women and animals. He sent his mother-in-law threatening texts; his mother-in-law had attended the church in the past. Kelley extended his violence to people who were like the people in his life he abused and harassed.

Kevin Neal’s violence similarly had a home in his relationships with his wife and neighbors. Neighbors had filed complaints about his gun use, which lead to a violent confrontation between Neal and of them. Neal was out on bail after having been charged with stabbing a neighbor who had a restraining order against him. He had, the previous day, been subject to a domestic violence call. Neal killed his wife and hid her body in their home. He then killed that same neighbor with the restraining order and another before shooting random victims. Quickly acting elementary school staff locked outside doors and barricaded themselves in when they first heard gunshots. Had they not done so, the death toll would have been much higher.

Both Kelley’s and Neal’s action has been described as springing from “domestic situations.” We regularly use the terms “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence” to describe the sorts of acts that lead up to or even cause the mass shootings. This makes it seem as if there is normal domestic violence and an abnormal domestic violence that extends beyond the realm of the home/domestic and into the public realm. This view ought to give us all pause and it is why I favor the term “domestic terrorism.”

“Domestic violence” is already a form of terrorism.  One person (spouse or partner or parent) controls another through violence, manipulation, intimidation, and coercion. The abuser’s violence may appear random and unpredictable but it always aims toward domination. The violence destabilizes victims and often strips them of their agency.

I advocate that we need to change the language we use to describe the type of horrific acts committed by Devin Kelley and Kevin Neal before the mass shootings as well as the shootings themselves.  Kelley and Neal  committed acts of domestic terrorism; they are domestic terrorists.  

The philosopher Wittgenstein claims that “For a large class of cases–though not for all–in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” How we use a term fixes its meaning and words are always used in a context. Meaning is something shared and public and not just what an individual intends when he uses a term. We need to fix the meaning of the term, “domestic terrorism,” in our moral language and not just in our legal language. In other words, we need to bust the term out of legal narrow confines so that it can be put to greater use in helping people to make sense of the way that violence against women and children is normalized.  “Domestic terrorism,” is a way to describe the common ordinary violence that infuses far too many domestic/interpersonal relationships and causes harms that leave a lasting legacy.

Much has been made whether these situations of much larger-scale violence are consequences of mental illness. But when the focus is on mental illness, there’s a temptation to look past the contexts and the actions that were the training grounds for their last actions. It becomes too easy to assume there is some radical but nevertheless identifiable break that happens between “regular” domestic violence and the grander scale violence. That break puts people like Devin Kelley and Kevin Neal beyond the pale. Perhaps they are; but then again, they may not be.

Someone might object that we need to reserve the term “domestic terrorism” for just the sort of acts described in the Patriot Act. Extending it to include domestic situations of the sort I describe would, the objector say, stretch the term to meaninglessness. Far too many people in the United States live in greater fear of violence perpetrated in their homes and personal relationships than they do of an attack from a “foreign agent.”  In using the term, “domestic terrorism,” we give it new meaning. It has far too much power for its use to be restricted to very few cases that the government determines. No, we must start using it as regularly and as commonly as the acts it names.


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