“Why don’t you call it terrorism?”
A Muslim world literature professor might have put that question to Donald Trump in the wake of the Mandalay Bay shooting. A white rust-belt Trump supporter might have put it to Barack Obama for refusing to go beyond expressing his grief after the Ft. Lauderdale shooting last January, which that gunman himself said he did in the name of the Islamic State.
A black woman might have put it to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, herself a black woman, when Dylann Roof wasn’t charged with terrorism.
Last year Trump escalated the whole debate into a terrible cliche. “These are radical Islamic terrorists. To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name.”
Well, my laptop froze up on me a while back, but I simply restarted it and that cleared everything up. But before I rebooted the computer I enrolled in a computer science course, learned the many arbitrary names that academics and programmers have assigned to an array of possible problems (a surprising number of them not so very well understood), diagnosed my problem, or at least what I thought it might be, then came home and rebooted my computer. There was no other possible way to have solved that problem.
But buried in Trump’s asinine screams is an implied question we often choose not to hear: What exactly is a terrorist? And why is it even important?
The Fuzzy Letter of the Law
First, it’s important for us as a law-governed society to distinguish certain crimes as terrorism. It means a crime is the product of greater societal forces we have to reckon with. This contextualizes terrorist attacks as symptoms of a disease that must be diagnosed and treated. If we avoid using that label, we send a message that societal factors such as racism or ideology that might have contributed to a crime aren’t worth addressing.
The problem we wrestle with today is a result of how unevenly the word “terrorism” has been applied. Muslim-Americans, for instance, often feel outsided, othered, and scrutinized as de facto criminals, but white men don’t, even though my demographic poses a greater domestic terrorist threat than Muslims.
But I’m not concerned about which group is worst. All groups are bad. Let’s start there.
To move forward, then, we need to understand how we define terrorist violence, because I believe that changing our legal language, if that’s even plausible, might help us get past this dangerous, perennial debate. This is because our legal definition is the root of the problem.
The U.S. federal code defines domestic terrorism as:
But the FBI has its own definitions: it defines international terrorism as “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored)”; and domestic terrorism as “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
But that’s a recent change. Earlier this year, the FBI’s website defined terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The change, please note, now emphasizes affiliation with a movement.
Contrast these definitions with the closely related federal legal definition of a “hate crime” (which Roof was charged with): “because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.”
Things get murky quickly. Do you have to be affiliated with a movement? Maybe? What’s “a civilian population”? Race and religion are both? What’s “coercion”? And to what degree? What does “intimidate” cover? Doesn’t all violence intimidate?
What about serial killers?
These definitions fail to account indisputably for the white terrorists (come on; there’s no other word) who have massacred dozens and dozens of innocent Americans. That’s because we’re too chickenshit to admit that violence for the sake of violence is an American terrorist ideology. It’s also a “movement”: Violence is contagious.
Although these loose and overlapping definitions cause a lot of problems in the public sphere, they also give prosecutors the ability to adapt charges and seek a range of sentences in court. But since the definition is so amoebic, we can’t share common ground to begin with, even with the lawyers—people on all sides can (and do) easily call out the excuses others make.
A recent piece in the New Yorker captures this well:
If the [Mandalay Bay] shooter had mentioned ISIS, the motive would be deemed political; if he were nonwhite, it would be racial. If he were white and hadn’t mentioned ISIS, there might be a domestic or family-related motive, or mental illness, or a bizarre, mysterious lack of motive….
This seems common sense to a lib like me. But it isn’t the truth, at least not in one sense. I’d like to point out some important exceptions.
You Can Shout “Allahu Akbar!” As You Kill People and Still Not Be a Terrorist
I return to this example frequently. The original piece is here.
On April 18 this year, a black man named Kori Ali Muhammad, who supported black nationalist movements and Black Lives Matter, shot three white men dead in Fresno, California.
And he yelled “Allahu Akbar!” as he did it.
That would have been the first domestic jihadist terrorist attack of Trump’s presidency, except it wasn’t investigated as a terrorism. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the incident had “nothing to do with terrorism in spite of the statement [Muhammad] made,” and the FBI treated it as a hate crime.
Yep: This black man with the last name Muhammad shouted “Allahu Akbar!” while he was murdering specifically white people for being white, and he still wasn’t called a terrorist. And Donald Trump was president when it happened.
The attack wasn’t motivated by religion or politics or to further political or social objectives. The Fresno police and the FBI, who aren’t treasonous liberal snowflakes, agree: the shooting was motivated simply by hate for white people, specifically white men.
Now check out the case of Benjamin Smith, a member of the neo-Nazi “World Church of the Creator” who one Independence Day carried out drive-by shootings on random minorities in Illinois and Indiana. This was treated as a hate crime, too, not terrorism. Or Buford Furrow, who shot up a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center with a semi-automatic the same year. Wasn’t charged with terrorism.
And again, Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in a Charleston, SC, church because they were black and he wanted to start a race war. He was never charged with terrorism, plus it took five days for federal prosecutors to bring hate crime charges. Police charged Kori Ali Muhammad with hate crimes within an hour.
There’s no consistency, and our assumptions aren’t always correct, on the left and right alike.
Here’s another example: the shooting at Fort Lauderdale Airport this January, where Esteban Santiago-Ruiz killed five people and wounded six others. Santiago-Ruiz served in the National Guard and had complained about hearing voices: The U.S. government was controlling his mind and making him watch ISIS videos, and the CIA was forcing him to join ISIS. He also said voices were telling him to commit violence.
Get this: Santiago-Ruiz himself said he carried out the attack in the name of the Islamic State, but he still wasn’t charged with terrorism. In spite of all this apparent evidence that Santiago-Ruiz, by no means your typical lone white man kind of name, was carrying out jihad, he was instead deemed (justly) mentally ill. Ironically, the typical excuse for a white gunman.
These legal complexities, nuances, and haphazard contradictions trickle into news stories, and they contribute to our often but not always justified outrage about racial bias in identifying patterns of political violence in America. Why doesn’t the news call Mandalay Bay terrorism? Well, it’s the media’s job to report the facts, and an attack isn’t a terrorist attack until law enforcement classifies it that way.
Why doesn’t law enforcement call it a terrorist attack? Because the definitions are purposefully fluid. What was the guy’s intent? How, aside from the scope of it, was his attack different than crazy Kori Ali Muhammad’s Fresno shooting spree?
It wasn’t. Those two guys shared the same ideology. That ideology is terrorism.
The Whatabout Challenge
“Terrorist” is a code word for “other,” but not always. It doesn’t fully operate independently of its definition. Law enforcement, for instance, certainly recognizes and acknowledges the vast scope of the right-wing, white supremacist terrorist threat as it meets the definition of terrorism.
That same New Yorker article includes this passage:
... it is impossible to imagine a political terrorist act that is free of personal motives or domestic implications, just as it’s impossible to imagine a domestic crime that doesn’t reflect ideology. And it’s a tautology that every mass shooting involves some degree of mental illness: we would surely count as worthless any definition of mental wellness that was compatible with murdering civilians.
In truth, not much separates any of the lone wolf attackers, irrespective of their background. They’re all insane, rage-filled people who choose to express their insanity through a readily available ideology. For instance, the NY-NJ bomber cited both ISIS and al Qaeda, which is anathema and shows a poor understanding of the true ideology and politics of jihad. I’d argue that lone wolf jihadism in the US is often no more or less ideological than John Hinckley’s Jodie Foster or Mark David Chapman’s Salinger. Or the Sutherland Springs shooter’s domestic troubles. Or the Mandalay Bay’s shooter’s whatever-the-fuck.
What about the case of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who shot 26 elementary school kids in Newtown, CT? He was severely autistic, to the point of being homebound. Did he have an “ideology”?
According to newly unsealed documents, Lanza was “singularly focused and obsessed with mass murders and spree killings” and thought of school shooters “with respect and understanding.” If you replace “school shooters” with “jihadists,” you’ve got yourself a knee-jerk terrorist label, my friend.
But is “massacring innocent people” for no point beyond the massacre itself an ideology? In white America, it is: Violence itself is the ideology. And make no mistake: Sutherland Springs, Mandalay Bay, Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine were all ideological terrorists.
The easiest way to bridge this gray area is be to make a simple edit to our definition:
”... perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, environmental, or violent nature.”
And for all too many angry, insecure, beleaguered white American men who worship guns and see violence as a sure way to power, terrorism is their ideology. That’s not so hard to understand, is it?