We go out of our way to avoid calling acts of terrorism what they are when the political agenda is right-wing. Then people blog about the double standard. It’s a cliche. The Dylann Roof thing is just so blatant that we have to admit that it’s terrorism. Totally off-message! Masha Gessen at Reuters makes the sort of too-clever-by-half suggestions one usually finds in propaganda for keeping white liberals in the fold. This was featured on the front page, right underneath the lead story about the Confederate flag.
Was the massacre of nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina an act of terrorism? Almost certainly, yes. Does this mean we should be calling the suspect, Dylann Roof, a terrorist, and prosecuting him as one? Probably not.
Somehow, we have to make this embarassing fact go away:
Many people have noted that the only obvious difference between Roof and the people Americans have in recent years called terrorists is that Roof is white and not Muslim.
Excellent move, here. Calling terrorism what it is hurts black people:
The petition addressed to the DOJ argues that it is imperative both to remove the case from the jurisdiction of the state of South Carolina and to prosecute it as an act of terrorism. Indeed, federal terrorism prosecutions are harsh, thanks in part to mandatory sentencing guidelines that include the so-called terrorism mark-up, which punish an illegal act more harshly if it was connected to an act of terrorism than if it was not. The wisdom and logic of these guidelines is questionable. One of the most remarkable cases of their application is that of the Newburgh Four, a group of poor black men who were blatantly entrapped by the FBI — and sentenced to 25 years in prison despite the judge’s expressed belief that they were guilty primarily of greed and “buffoonery.”
Terrorism laws intended for Muslims have been used to hurt other oppressed minorities ridiculous ways. Therefore, we should take an unambiguous example of terrorism against black people and call it something else. Makes perfect sense.
If prosecuted as a terrorist under federal law, Roof would likely face the death penalty. But the governor of South Carolina has already called for the death penalty in his case. Punishment doesn’t get any harsher than that, so calling Roof a terrorist would serve no clear pragmatic legal purpose.
The trick here is to pretend that the law doesn’t have important symbolic functions. What pragmatic purpose does it serve to prosecute Nazi camp guards on their death beds? What pragmatic purpose does it serve to pardon Alan Turing, long dead?
The point is that “terrorism” signifies the worst possible thing, and large numbers of people don’t feel like killing niggers is the worst possible thing. Because niggers aren’t people.
The term “terrorism” has extra-Constitutional consequences: it opens the door to wiretapping, phone tapping, and other sorts of surveillance. It has opened the door to torture. I am fairly certain that the people calling for Roof to be labeled a “terrorist” don’t want more of that. Nor is the argument being made that there is a hidden plot or a conspiracy that needs to be uncovered in this case.
I’m pretty sure even Edward Snowden is in favor of wiretapping actual suspected terrorists instead of everybody in the world. There was actually a lot of terrorism in America before Bush started openly acknowledging torture.
“Extra-Constitutional consequences” is an amazing phrase. Reuters editorials take it for granted that the rule of law is a joke, and there’s no suggestion of doing anything about that.
I would say that we use the term when we want to “other” the perpetrator, to define him or her as both less than human and possessed of superhuman powers…. The way the word “terrorist” is used in the United States, in the media or in the courts, precludes seeing someone who took part in a terrorist act as a human being.
Personally, I use the word to mean violence with a political agenda. It’s very revealing about the psychology of normal people, though. Masha Gessen is describing exactly what the word means in popular culture. It means “dehumanizing people we’re irrationally afraid of.” Grown men and women on airplanes are terrified that some random lady in a headscarf is going to destroy them with a can of soda. It really happened.
The dispute arose Friday after Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim American chaplain at Northwestern University, claimed she was told she couldn’t have the unopened can of Diet Coke she requested because passengers “may use it as a weapon” on the plane.
When the man sitting next to her received an unopened can of beer, Ahmad said she protested. A fellow passenger then allegedly yelled, “You Muslim, you need to shut the … up,” and said that “You know you would use it as a weapon.”
Ahmad was wearing a hijab on the flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., according to Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, which is representing Ahmad in the dispute and held a joint press conference with her Wednesday.
The conclusion of Gessen’s article is that we retire terrorism rhetoric in the name of understanding why bad things happen:
Writing off horrific crimes as incomprehensible and irrational makes things easier in the short run — by giving us permission to stop thinking — but in the long run it ensures that crimes that stem from the same roots will be repeated again and again.
That’s why we shouldn’t be calling Dylann Roof a terrorist. In fact, at this point, we would be better off retiring the word altogether.
Except that Dylann Roof was a terrorist in a long tradition of white supremacist terrorism. Gessen is proposing that we ignore the most salient fact of the whole situation: old-school Southern racists are bad, and the country should make a clear symbolic statement that they don’t represent decent folks. They’re certainly “other” than me. Except that Roof was expressing mainsteam values, which are nevertheless taboo to admit in the presence of niggers.
The amazing thing is that she’s more comfortable giving up the “war on terror” than dwelling on the nasty side of American culture. The world suffers for white people’s fears, denials, and identity issues.