Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.
The Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting again reignited the one-sided debate over whether or not such incidents should be labeled as acts of terrorism. In a must-read post, Juan Cole argues that the media tends to make a distinction between “terrorists” — foreign, generally Muslim violent actors — and “extremists” — American killers similarly motivated by political grievances. The families American of political murderers are interviewed “weeping as they wonder where he went wrong,” while the families of Muslim “terrorists” are rarely spoken with; while American extremists are seen as members of the political “fringe,” Muslim “terrorists” are seen as emblematic of their own “mainstream” society and its inherent ills.
Human rights lawyer and author Arsalan Iftikhar similarly argues:
…it’s important for our greater American society to also condemn acts of terrorism when the perpetrator happens to be a white guy.
If not, we send millions of people of color around America the message that the term “terrorism” has been co-opted, that it shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters and not when they are the tragic victims.
Unless we acknowledge this attack on the Sikh temple as an act of terrorism, we will essentially be relegating brown-skinned Americans to second-class citizenry by perpetuating the myth that “terrorism” is only a Muslim, Arab or South Asian phenomenon and beyond the pale for any white person to commit.
The New Yorker’s Steve Coll makes a broader observation on “domestic racist terrorism”:
A pattern of terrorism that is repetitive, rising in ambition, and neglected by the public can signal a coming strategic surprise—this was true of Al Qaeda during the late nineteen-nineties, and it looks to be true of domestic racist terrorism today.
The three all make essential points. There is a widespread double standard when it comes to identifying “terrorists,” one that in the United States is not only racial, but nationalist and civilizational as well. Our society does not produce terrorists, but theirs most certainly does. There is nothing wrong with our culture, but theirs is clearly dysfunctional and degenerate — which is why they produce terrorists, whereas only marginal “losers” and “nutjobs” like Wade Michael Page become “extremists” in the United States.
Domestic political violence in America is a reality, albeit a rather marginal one. And violence from the right is perhaps currently a greater “threat” than is an attack from al Qaeda — and greater than that from the left. As Peter Bergen notes, between 2007 and 2009, there were 53 acts of violence perpetrated by members of the racist right, while a number of rightwing extremists were arrested for the planned use chemical or biological weapons.
However, labeling domestic violent actors as “terrorists” has broader implications that these authors fail note: the strengthening of the national security state; the further militarization of police forces; greater surveillance infringing on the right to privacy; increased deterioration of civil rights; and, perhaps paradoxically, it can create the condition for further and escalating violence by validating the paranoid worldview of these extremists. That is, Muslims may no longer bear the brunt of counterterrorist repression alone.
We’ve been here before and seen the consequences of such “domestic terrorists among us” paranoia. Following the Oklahoma City bombings, the Justice Department and the media were in hysterics over the threat of “homegrown terrorism,” primarily in the form of the militia movement. Despite the hype, few actual acts of violence occurred. There were, however, infiltrations of militias and extremist political organizations by security agents, allegations of entrapment by the FBI, and concerted surveillance and investigations based on little more than the ideas harbored by individuals and groups.
For the most part the militia movement was little more than a collection of individuals who shared a fascination with guns and outlandish conspiracy theories. Few of these groups posed any “threat” whatsoever to government or society. As Jesse Walker argues:
After Oklahoma City, a few figures on the fringes of the militia milieu were nabbed for planning attacks. These plots—by the most generous definition of militia, there were about a dozen of them—bolstered the anti-militia narrative, but the details of the schemes reveal a much more complicated picture. Several of the plans originated with the government’s own infiltrators. Many of the “militias” involved were tiny operations run by hotheads who’d been expelled from more established militia groups. And most important, in at least three cases the conspirators were arrested after militia members themselves got wind of the plans and alerted police.
Similar to their current strategy against supposed “Islamic extremists” — and well before the Oklahoma City bombing — the FBI used questionable methods against militia members and others in the radical right, often engaging in what may have been entrapment. Despite infiltrating a number of well-known groups, the FBI failed to uncover and disrupt Timothy McVeigh’s plot.
History seems to be repeating itself — with many of the same actors who led the charge against the extreme right in the nineties again at the forefront. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has issued ominous warnings about the proliferation of “hate groups” and extreme rightwing organizations, often conflating the two:
Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.
These factors also are feeding a powerful resurgence of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, which in the 1990s led to a string of domestic terrorist plots, including the Oklahoma City bombing. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.
It is not clear from the SPLC’s description whether or not there is a distinction between Neo-Nazis like Wade Michael Page and Patriot groups. Certainly there is overlap between these two, as anyone who has been to a gun show can attest. But there are also crucial differences. Not every militia member is a racist Neo-Nazi, just as most skinheads could care less about the size of the deficit. According to Jesse Walker:
That much-cited Southern Poverty Law Center list lumps together a very varied set of organizations, blurring the boundary between people who might have sympathy for Hutaree-style plots and people who would want no part of them…Using this list to track the threat of right-wing terrorism is like tracking the threat of jihadist terrorism by counting the country’s mosques.
Political violence from the right does indeed exist, but the extent to which it represents an actual “threat” seems to be, once again, overhyped. Between June 2008 and March 2011, there have been at least 24 plots targeting “liberals” and the “government.” The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 97 actual or planned attacks by the extreme right since 1995. These numbers pale in comparison to non-political murders in the United States: in 2010 alone there were 12,996 murders. Indeed, you are 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist — foreign or domestic. Furthermore, as Steve Coll points out, the death rate from non-ideological mass shootings — which are fairly rare events — is about a hundred per year, 30 times higher than the rate of murders committed by perpetrators motivated by politics.
“Terrorism,” more than most political terms, quickly escapes the field of pure semantics and imposes real world consequences, the most obvious of which is the institutionalization of more repressive security measures. Since the initial militia hysteria, things have changed considerably. Expanded state power and the deterioration of civil liberties after 9/11 are far more entrenched and popularly accepted now than they have ever been. A new emphasis on “domestic terrorism” will lead inexorably to the further entrenchment of these processes. Since actual violence is rare, ideas have increasingly become the cause for and target of state repression, as the ACLU’s Michael German argues, against the left as well as the right.
The left in particular should be wary of encouraging further repression through labeling our political opponents as terrorists. Sure it’s satisfying, and as a means of maintaining internal solidarity it is incredibly effective. But the left has been the target of repression via the “terrorism” label since the late nineteenth century, when sporadic incidents of anarchist violence justified an overwhelming state onslaught against the workers movement. During the 1920s and 1950s, ideology — as a potential source of violence — was sufficient cause for repressing the old left, creating the conditions for the rightward imbalance of the American political scene that has held since. Today, the heavy-handed repression and surveillance of the Occupy Movement is often justified by the supposed presence of “anarchists” (read: “terrorists”) within its ranks.
Labeling the extreme right as “terrorists” may lead paradoxically to further repression against the American left, as the state seeks to be “fair and balanced” in battling domestic terrorism. For every “threat” uncovered on the right, the Justice Department may be face pressure from the establishment conservative media, the GOP, and respectable centrist pundits to uncover anarchist cells or nascent plots by “eco-terrorists.” Militias and antigovernment organizations will not be the only groups subject to infiltration. Occupy organizations, immigrants’ rights groups, environmental and antiwar activists: such groups may be further targeted in order to provide “balance” and assuage the powerful rightwing establishment and the “paranoid center.”
Perhaps more importantly, we on the left should stand for civil liberties and freedom from state persecution — for radical Muslims as well as for rightwing extremists, both of whose views I personally find distasteful. This is America. Being a racist asshole with paranoid delusions is a right. So long as they don’t kill anyone.