In February 2010, a man named Joseph Stack deliberately flew his small airplane into the side of a building that housed a regional IRS office in Austin, Texas, just as 200 agency employees were starting their workday. Along with himself, Stack killed an IRS manager and injured 13 others.
Stack was an anti-tax, anti-government fanatic, and chose his target for exclusively political reasons. He left behind a lengthy manifesto cogently setting forth his largely libertarian political views (along with, as I wrote at the time, some anti-capitalist grievances shared by the left, such as “rage over bailouts, the suffering of America’s poor, and the pilfering of the middle class by a corrupt economic elite and their government-servants”; Stack’s long note ended: “the communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed”). About Stack’s political grievances, his manifesto declared that “violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.
The attack had all of the elements of iconic terrorism, a model for how it’s most commonly understood: down to flying a plane into the side of a building. But Stack was white and non-Muslim. As a result, not only was the word “terrorism” not applied to Stack, but it was explicitly declared inapplicableby media outlets and government officials alike.
The New York Times’s report on the incident stated that while the attack “initially inspired fears of a terrorist attack” — before the identity of the pilot was known — now “in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology, Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.”
As a result, said the Paper of Record, “officials ruled out any connection to terrorist groups or causes.” And “federal officials emphasized the same message, describing the case as a criminal inquiry.” Even when U.S. Muslim groups called for the incident to be declared “terrorism,” the FBI continued to insist it “was handling the case ‘as a criminal matter of an assault on a federal officer’ and that it was not being considered as an act of terror.”
By very stark contrast, consider the October 2014, shooting in Ottawa by a single individual, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, at the Canadian Parliament building. As soon as it was known that the shooter was a convert to Islam, the incident was instantly and universally declared to be “terrorism.” Less than 24 hours afterward, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared it a terror attack and even demanded new “counter-terrorism” powers in its name (which he has now obtained). To bolster the label, the government claimed Zehaf-Bibeau was on his way to Syria to fight with jihadists, and the media trumpeted this “fact.”
In his address to the nation the day after the shooting, Harper vowed to learn more about the “terrorist and any accomplices he may have had” and intoned: “This is a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.” Twitter users around the world en masse used the hashtag of solidarity reserved (for some reason) only for cities attacked by a Muslim (but not cities attacked by their own governments): #OttawaStrong. In sum, that this was a “terror attack” was mandated conventional wisdom before anything was known other than the Muslim identity of the perpetrator.
As it turns out, other than the fact that the perpetrator was Muslim and was aiming his violence at Westerners, almost nothing about this attack had the classic hallmarks of “terrorism.” In the days and weeks that followed, it became clear that Zehaf-Bibeau suffered from serious mental illness and “seemed to have become mentally unstable.” He had a history of arrests for petty offenses and had received psychiatric treatment. His friends recall him expressing no real political views but instead claiming he was possessed by the devil.
The Canadian government was ultimately forced to admit that their prior media claim about him preparing to go to Syria was totally false, dismissing it as “a mistake.” Now that Canadians know the truth about him — rather than the mere fact that he’s Muslim and committed violence — a plurality no longer believe the “terrorist” label applies, but believe the attack was motivated by mental illness. The term “terrorist” got instantly applied by know-nothings for one reason: he was Muslim and had committed violence, and that, in the post-9/11 West, is more or less the only working definition of the term (in the rare cases when it is applied to non-Muslims these days, it’s typically applied to minorities engaged in acts that have no resemblance to what people usually think of when they hear the term).
That is the crucial backdrop for yesterday’s debate over whether the term “terrorism” applies to the heinous shooting by a white nationalist of nine African-Americans praying in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost immediately, news reports indicated there was “no sign of terrorism” — by which they meant: it does not appear that the shooter is Muslim.
Yet other than the perpetrator’s non-Muslim identity, the Charleston attack from the start had the indicia of what is commonly understood to be “terrorism.” Specifically, the suspected shooter was clearly a vehement racist who told witnesses at the church that he was acting out of racial hatred and a desire to force African-Americans “to go.” His violence was the byproduct of and was intended to publicize and forward his warped political agenda, and was clearly designed to terrorize the community he hates.
That’s why so many African-American and Muslim commentators and activists insisted that the term “terrorist” be applied: because it looked, felt and smelled exactly like other acts that are instantly branded “terrorism” when the perpetrator is Muslim and the victims largely white. It was very hard — and still is — to escape the conclusion that the term “terrorism,” at least as it’s predominantly used in the post-9/11 West, is about the identity of those committing the violence and the identity of the targets. It manifestly has nothing to do with some neutral, objective assessment of the acts being labelled.
The point here is not, as some very confused commentatorssuggested, to seek an expansion of the term “terrorism” beyond its current application. As someone who has spent the last decade more or less exclusively devoted to documenting the abuses and manipulations that term enables, the last thing I want is an expansion of its application.
But what I also don’t want is for non-Muslims to rest in their privileged nest, satisfied that the term and its accompanying abuses is only for that marginalized group. And what I especially don’t want is to have this glaring, damaging mythology persist that the term “terrorism” is some sort of objectively discernible, consistently applied designation of a particularly hideous kind of violence. I’m eager to have the term recognized for what it is: a completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever. Recognition of that reality is vital to draining the term of its potency.
The examples proving the utter malleability of the term “terrorism” are far too numerous to chronicle here. But over the past decade alone, it’s been used by Western political and media figures to condemn Muslims who used violence against an invading and occupying force in Afghanistan, against others who raised funds to help Iraqis fight against an invading and occupying military in their country, and for others who attack soldiers in an army that is fighting many wars. In other words, any violence by Muslims against the West is inherently “terrorism,” even if targeted only at soldiers at war and/or designed to resist invasion and occupation.
By stark contrast, no violence by the West against Muslims can possibly be “terrorism,” no matter how brutal, inhumane or indiscriminately civilian-killing. The U.S. can call its invasion of Baghdad “Shock and Awe” as a classic declaration of terrorism intent, or fly killer drones permanently over terrorized villages and cities, or engage in generation-lasting atrocities in Fallujah, or arm and fund Israeli and Saudi destruction of helpless civilian populations, and none of that, of course, can possibly be called “terrorism.” It just has the wrong perpetrators and the wrong victims.
Then there is all the game-playing the U.S. does with the term right out in the open. Nelson Mandela, now widely regarded as a moral hero, was officially a “terrorist” in U.S. eyes for decades (and the CIA thus helped its allied apartheid regime capture him). Iraq was on the terrorist list and then off it and then on it based on whatever designation best suited U.S. interests at the moment. The Iranian cult MEK was long decreed a “terror group” until they paid enough influential people in Washington to get off the list, coinciding with the U.S. desire to punish Tehran. The Reagan administration armed and funded classic terror groups in Latin America while demanding sanctions on the Soviets and Iranians for being state sponsors of terrorism. Whatever this is, it is not the work of a term that has a consistent, objective meaning.
Ample scholarship proves that the term “terrorism” is empty, definition-free and invariably manipulated. Harvard’s Lisa Stampnitzky has documented “the inability of researchers to establish a suitable definition of the concept of ‘terrorism’ itself.” The concept of “terrorism” is fundamentally plagued by ideological agendas and self-interested manipulation, as Professor Richard Jackson at the the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Zealand has explained: “most of what is accepted as well-founded ‘knowledge’ in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable” and is “biased towards Western state priorities.” Remi Brulin is a scholar who specializes in the discourse of “terrorism” and has long documented that, from the start, it was a highly manipulated term of propaganda more than it was a term of fixed meaning — largely intended to justify violence by the West and Israel while delegitimizing the violence of its enemies.
What is most amazing about all of this is that “terrorism” — a term that is so easily and frequently manipulated and devoid of fixed meaning — has now become central to our political culture and legal framework, a staple of how we are taught to think about the world. It is constantly invoked, as though it is some sort of term of scientific precision, to justify an endless array of radical policies and powers. Everything from the attack on Iraq to torture to endless drone killings to mass surveillance and beyond are justified in its name.
In fact, it is, as I have often argued, a term that justifies everything yet means nothing. Perhaps the only way people will start to see that, or at least be bothered by it, is if it becomes clear that not just marginalized minority groups but also their own group can be swept up by its elasticity and meaninglessness. There is ample resistance to that, which is why repulsive violence committed by white non-Muslims such as yesterday’s church massacre is so rarely described by the term. But that’s all the more reason to insist on something resembling fair and consistent application.