The recent brutal attack on a soldier in London by men identifying as Muslims has reignited the debate about what the term “terrorism” means and to whom it applies. Anti-Muslim activists in the United States were quick to label the attack “Islamic terrorism,” despite the short supply of details at the time.
Dictionary definitions of the term “terrorism” abound. Among them is one in the New Oxford American Dictionary, which succinctly defines it as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” On the other hand, “murder” is defined by the same dictionary as “the unlawful, premeditated killing of one human being by another.”
Based on the video of the apparent killer, it is difficult to argue that the attack was not motivated by “political aims.” After all, he faced the camera and said the attack targeted the soldier in retaliation for the UK’s involvement in the deaths of Muslims in other countries.
The question of whether the attack was or was not “terrorism” has yielded assertions on either side. On the Heritage Foundation’s blog, The Foundry, Luke Coffey contends “there is no doubt” that it was. He says, “It was an act of brutality motivated by extreme religious and political beliefs with the aim of terrorizing the people of London.” On the other hand, Glenn Greenwald argues that the label is tossed around so recklessly that its meaning has become muddled.
A follow up question is whether a politically motivated act of violence can be considered terrorism only when it involves people who claim to kill in the name of Islam. If the answer is yes, what, then, is to be made of politically motivated acts of violence that occur in other contexts, especially when the suspect is a white, non-Muslim U.S. citizen? What makes one politically motivated act of violence “terrorism” and another “murder”?
In order to begin to answer those questions, the role of racism and bigotry in U.S. law enforcement and counter-terrorism strategy must be considered.
For many people, an understanding of Muslims in the United States has been influenced, in large part, by so-called authorities set out to defame them. Further, these same “authorities” and “experts” — aided by media and society at-large — seem to deliberately dismiss the significance of race and racism in U.S. history and public policy.
Today’s “war on terror,” as outlined in a recent article by author Sohail Daulatzai, bears striking resemblance to the earlier “war on crime,” complete with racial overtones. He argues that in the definition of certain activities as “crime” and in the efforts to control it, fears of the “black criminal” were intensified. “Crime” began to be understood as distinctly tied to blackness, thus casting suspicion on all black people and leading to the widely accepted law enforcement practice of racial profiling at the local, state and federal levels. Hence the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy, which is currently under scrutiny in a historic class-action lawsuit.
In the same way, the “war on terror” has resulted in casting suspicion on nearly all Muslims and on those perceived to be Muslim. This has led to a similar type of fear and profiling of individuals in the U.S. Additionally, this line of thinking has broader foreign policy implications as it allows for entire regions of the world to fall under the shadow of suspicion.
When it comes to acts of violence that seem to be political, but are carried out by white, non-Muslim U.S. citizens, the narrative shifts.
The same anti-Muslim writers and activists otherwise quick to disparage large swaths of people, argue that it’s not fair to conflate the actions of an individual with the stance of an entire group. They rely on distinction between “evil” and “crazy” and frame themselves as victims of left-wing hate campaigns. Robert Spencer is expert at invoking “Islamic supremacist” “exploitation,” deflecting any accountability for his own inflammatory rhetoric when criticism comes his way.
As an example, anti-Muslim writers brushed off assertions that Jared Lee Loughner, a white American man who killed six people in 2011 in an attempt to assassinate U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was a politically motivated “terrorist.” Instead, they claim, as FrontPage Magazine‘s Jeff Dunetz did, that Loughner was “not political, just psycho.”
To use Dunetz’s logic, would a man who would maim and kill in broad daylight then stand before witnesses and cameras — weapons brandished and hands bloodied — to boast of his actions not be considered “psycho,” despite whatever political declarations he may have made?
Of course, this discussion warrants an extended and nuanced analysis, beyond what is possible in quick sound bites, and certainly beyond what reverberates in the Islamophobic echo chamber.
Writing for FrontPage Magazine in 2011, Daniel Flynn, arguably without intending to speak against anti-Muslim bias, does so anyway in response to the Loughner case. Flynn makes the case against knee-jerk “terrorism” labeling, against profiling, against assigning a set of beliefs held by many to the motives and actions of a few deranged individuals:
“There’s something indecent about politicizing a multiple victim public shooting, particularly on the very day that it occurred. There’s also something pathological about reflexively assigning the political outlook of one’s opponents to those who commit evil.”
Critically, he continues, “This speaks more directly to the motives of these slanderers than it does to the killer.”
Indeed, it does.