A day after 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov allegedly drove a rented Home Depot pickup truck 20 blocks down the West Side Highway bike path Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring 12 others, he was charged with committing an act of terrorism.

"Yesterday afternoon a man consumed by hate and a twisted ideology attacked our country and our city," Joon Kim, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, told reporters. "This was an attack on the United States of America and... it was the definition of terrorism," Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed. Earlier, Senator John McCain suggested that Saipov, a legal permanent resident from Uzbekistan, didn't deserve his Miranda Rights. President Donald Trump suggested Saipov might belong in Guantanamo, calling him an "enemy combatant".

"Acts of terrorism are inherently political, and so are the responses to them," says Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror and a visiting professor at NYU in the Media, Culture, and Communication Department. This week, we spoke to Kundnani about the definition of terrorism in America, what Tuesday's attack means for New York City's Muslim community, and the idea that we are under siege by terrorists outside our borders.

How do you define terrorism? What makes the term inherently political?

It's not surprising that the word terrorism is being used in this case. I think the issue is more that we don't have a consistent definition of what gets called terrorism and what doesn't. And if we did have a consistent definition, it would be something like, acts of violence carried out for political purposes against civilians, which is what you'd see in the dictionary. If we use that term, then of course a lot of other things that we don't call terrorism would be called terrorism, right?

I think we need to see this case alongside Charlottesville. We need to see them both as extreme right wing violent fanatics who thought it was okay to kill other people for their beliefs.

What are some of the consequences of our selective application of the term "terrorism"?

The way this event gets used to try to externalize how we think about violence in the United States. I think that it should be obvious to everyone that we have a massive problem of violence within the United States. And we're not facing up to it. And when an event like this happens it's kind of a gift for those people who want to pretend that the problem of violence in the United States comes from outside the United States. That's why we then want to put these incidents into a special category called terrorism, or radical Islamic terrorism. We think that we can deal with the problem by having tougher immigration controls or extreme vetting to stop this problem from coming into the country from the outside.

And in a sense, by carrying out an act of violence, [Saipov's] actually... doing something that's very American. Look at the global data that's been done on public opinion around the world. Where in the world is there the highest percentage of people that think it's okay to kill civilians for your political ideology? It's in the United States. It's not in Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan or Uzbekistan.

(Courtesy Mayor's Office)

On Wednesday, the NYPD urged all New Yorkers to rely on their "gut feelings" and act as eyes and ears on the ground as the investigation into Saipov continues. "If you see something out there that doesn't look right, If it makes you uncomfortable, you have the obligation to flag down a police car," NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said. You write a lot about Islamaphobia and selective policing. What might New Yorkers expect in the coming weeks?

Our "gut feelings" have been shaped by two decades of Islamophobic propaganda and misinformation. Encouraging the police to act on what makes people "uncomfortable" is a recipe for racial and religious profiling. We've already seen this happen with airline passengers—lots of cases of people being removed from planes because passengers thought they were "suspicious" but actually because, for example, they spoke some Arabic, were praying, or were South Asian and had a beard.

Add to that these attempts that will be made, that are already being made by the Trump Administration and conservative media, to use this event to kind of posture their ongoing political program around immigration. The conversation that you are seeing right now around how we shouldn't have let this guy in, and attacking political correctness that allowed this to happen, all of those things are now going to be circulating.

What kind of surveillance apparatus already exists in NYC?

If you watch the news you would not probably know just how much surveillance there already is. We are still living in a city where every mosque gets investigated simply for being a mosque. The New York City Police Department has huge numbers of informants who are going after people not because there is a reasonable suspicion that warrants investigation, but investigating organizations and shops and cafes simply because they are a part of the Muslim community. To say at this stage that due to political correctness we have not had sufficient rigor in our surveillance ignores that reality. If we're saying we want more than what we have, essentially what we are saying is we want a police state-style system for Muslims in the United States.

How can we try to thwart and condemn terrorism without demonizing a whole swath of people?

Our problem is we have such an inconsistent skewed idea of what terrorism is. I think we need to understand that when we call this guy a terrorist, that doesn't necessarily mean the terrorist character from a cartoon action movie who is well trained and part of a global organization.

In these cases, a complex story, possibly involving some combination of mental health, ideology, anger at U.S. policy, personal contact with ISIS sympathizers, online exposure to extreme material, et cetera, will get simplified to a stereotype of Islamic radicalization that obscures more than it reveals. The bottom line is that this guy has more in common with Dylann Roof and James Alex Fields than with ordinary Muslims and he is more American than we realize.

If we understand that, I think we'll be more resilient in how we respond to things, and we won't think that the nation is under attack, which ends up playing into the hands of ISIS. That's exactly what ISIS wants: for other nations to simply exaggerate the threat and see it as existential and acts of war, when actually all they have to do is put a few videos online and some random guy emulates it and imitates it and we treat it almost like another 9/11. It's a gift to ISIS to do that.

The interview has been edited and condensed.