Monday, August 6, 2012

What Are Words For, When No One Listens Anymore

Nope.  Not a terrorist.  Just a bank robber.
In this weekend's example of American senseless slaughter, a white supremacist named Wade Page walked into a Sikh temple with a gun and killed a bunch of unarmed people, apparently because he thought they were Muslims.  He then engaged the law enforcement personnel when they arrived, and in what is very likely a case of "suicide by cop" he was killed in that exchange.  The FBI has taken over the investigation because they have tentatively classified the attack as an act of domestic terrorism.

There's that word again.  Terrorism.  What exactly is terrorism?  Or perhaps we should ask what isn't?  Shouldn't an act of terror at least have some component of a political or sectarian agenda?  When a brutal mass murder is the result of nothing more than years of festering, mindless racial hate, can we really say the intent was to terrorize?  We use the word to describe any attack of sufficient brutality or one that cannot be described as a simple criminal act, but at some point, if everything is terrorism then nothing is.  Everything that terrifies us cannot be terrorism.  Terrorism cannot be a catchall to describe everything we think is dangerous or evil.  Bashir al-Assad describes the Syrian Free Army as terrorists.  The Russians said the residents of Grozny were terrorists, and on that basis they slaughtered them and leveled the city.  America kills people in Pakistan without even knowing their names, people who have never been to America or even met an American, on the premise that they are somehow "terrorists".

There are more reasons to kill than tribal politics and religion.  People have been killing each other for as long as there have been people, and often it's simply because there is some toxic combination of hatred and mental instability.  It's hard for people to murder unarmed, innocent people without indoctrination of some kind, but that indoctrination needn't include anything beyond the hatred itself and that doesn't always rise to the level of terrorism.  We never said Charles Whitman was a terrorist, nor James Huberty or even Ted Bundy.  At a minimum, today we would say the first two were terrorists, just as it was said of James Holmes in Colorado.

There are very practical reasons for desiring a firm, generally accepted, significantly narrowed definition of terrorism.  And it is for those very reasons that we should not expect to see one anytime soon.  Authoritarian governments use terrorism to control their populations, and to get their people to mindlessly accept increasing restrictions on their civil liberties.  Just look what Israel has done to the Palestinians in the name of terrorism, or what the Americans have been not just willing, but desperate to embrace since 9/11.  The loathsome GW Bush administration played on Americans fears of terrorism after 9/11 to commit a long series of destructive and unspeakable act in the name of protecting the US, including the aggressive invasion of a nation with whom we were at peace, something we declared the ultimate war crime at Nuremberg just half a century before.

Interestingly, under US law, the definition is surprisingly narrow:

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents

Very few, if any, of these oddly American outbursts of mass murder meet that criteria.  But it is not to the benefit of the government, law enforcement or the media to use the term with considered care.  Rather, in order to create the most fearful response, anything that can hearken back to that morning in September 2001 when America collectively decided that their fear was greater than their founding values, any act of violence can be used to justify even greater restrictions on our civil liberties and yet another expansion of the surveillance state.  Of course, the same fears of terrorism can be used to justify horrific acts and massive corporate greed, all under the rubric of counter-terrorism.

It is a toxic construct that, along with it's handmaiden in murder "WMD", represents the most powerful threat to democratic governance in the world.  To the extent their are people of wealth and power who fervently wish to limit freedom and civil liberties, it is under the guise of a terrible threat that they will be successful.  And sadly, like sheep being led to the slaughter, we continually accept the messaging they choose to utilize...


  1. When a brutal mass murder is the result of nothing more than years of festering, mindless racial hate, can we really say the intent was to terrorize?

    We can if that festering, mindless hate was encouraged by powerful people who did so to further their own interests.

    This was an act of terror.

    I say Muslims in this country are being terrorized.

  2. Yeah, I think Nazi Asshole intended to commit a political act, even if he didn't leave behind a manifesto.

    Maybe he just wanted to kill some muzzies, but I rather think his targeting of a temple could only hope to engender fear in a specific target.

    I mean, it is stupid and poorly thought out, but him being a dumbass doesn't mean he wasn't aspiring to terrorist.

  3. also, it is quite clear that either thunder or I are operating out of spec, judging by the agreeing.


    (as they say at Eschaton)

  5. Wow. This place is just like Atrios!


  6. apparently because he thought they were Muslims

    You gotta terrorize EVERYONE who looks different.

  7. Also, nice Missing Persons reference in the title. Well played.