Okay, so I’ve been debating whether to write this post, as for my normal readership, I feel like this is really preaching to the choir. However, it’s also really stuck in my head, so I figure getting it on paper might help. Also, trigger warnings for discussions of terrorism, violence, abuse, bombings, shootings, and rape.
I don’t think anyone can miss that we have a huge, unaddressed problem with violence in this country. Even though the rates of violent crime have been decreasing consistently for decades, violence remains a reality in the lives of way too many Americans. The most recent attack against Americans in Charleston, SC, as well as the start of the trial of the Colorado theater shooter, has spurred discussions about racism, gun violence, and the role of privilege in violence that this country desperately needs to have. However, there is one aspect of these discussions that is particularly important to me and the kind of work that I do that I want to talk about here, namely that as a country and as a community, we need to get comfortable calling these people terrorists.
There’s an old joke called “the Duck Test,” which was popularized in the 1940s, that “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’m going to call it a duck.” Like any piece of rhetoric, there are obviously a thousand problems with the Duck Test, but when it comes to the perpetrators of violent crimes, it does feel relevant. Shooting up public places is, for lack of a better word, terrifying, but there’s significant evidence demonstrating the difference in how the perpetrators of this kind of crime – who are generally white, male, and middle class – are described as compared to either nonwhite terrorists or nonwhite violent criminals (or indeed, nonwhite victims of violent crimes). Indeed, this division runs so deep that we separate terminology for almost every aspect of these crimes – “mass shootings,” “gunman,” and “gun violence” are all disturbingly neutral, and “madman,” as applied to shooters, is both ableist and essentially apologetic, attempting to explain away the perpetrator’s actions as a form of mental illness.
I’ve talked before about the dangers of our use of “Islamic terrorism,” that by constantly reinforcing the Islamic-ness of acts of terrorism by people who self-identify as Muslims, we’re creating a subconscious association between Islam and terrorism (Tariq al-Hubb wrote a great followup to my post, which is here). The more we use the term, the more we search for something essentially Islamic in these acts of violence to accommodate its usage. However, it’s the word “terrorism” that’s actually important – we should care about acts of terrorism worldwide because they are terrorism, not due to their association to any other ideology.
Moreover, as I think our resistance to calling mass shooters terrorists demonstrates, the focus of “Islamic terrorism” has warped our view of what terrorism is. At its most basic, terrorism is a planned system of violent acts intended to create fear and terror in a community, in order to force that community to preserve or return to a traditional status quo (real or imagined). In this way, terrorism is more than just violence. In the same way as abuse, it’s violence used to a specific aim, used to mold people’s behaviors and actions through negative association with acts of violence. Terrorists use violence – murders, bombings, kidnappings, rapes, and attacks – to keep their target community afraid with the ultimate goal of exerting power and authority over that community.
I would guess that this definition of terrorism would not fit with most white and middle class Americans view of terrorism because we’re in the lucky position to have only ever been tangentially connected to it. As a white, middle class woman, I will only ever be the victim of terrorism by random chance. My connection to terrorism is the same as my connection to the lottery or to lightning. I might be afraid of being struck by lightning or excited by the idea of winning the lottery, but in both cases, these thoughts are nothing more than passing fancies, something that might pop into my head one day, but which will never be my central focus.
This is not the experience of terrorism for communities targeted by terrorists. These communities live in constant fear of the next attack, the next murder, the next death, if it will be them or someone they love. This may not be the experience of terrorism by white communities in the US, but as the Charleston shooting demonstrates, it is still the experience of nonwhite communities in the US. Basically, for those of us with white privilege, understanding terrorism as a system of violence against a target community doesn’t seem relevant or accurate because we’re not the target community. That makes it all too easy to see mass shootings as isolated incidents and not part of a larger system of violence.
This misconception of what terrorism is, and why mass shooters are terrorists, also impacts how we perceive “Islamic terrorism.” It is the case that there are terrorist organizations that use Muslim imagery and narrative as part of their justification for their actions, like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram. It is also the case that many of their victims – in some cases, even the majority of their victims -, are Muslims. Al-Qaeda may claim to want to overthrow America and American leadership, but they’re actually much more interested in maintaining their own power in the Middle East. Indeed, America works as an ideological target for al-Qaeda in large part because of the history of American interference and imperialist action in the Middle East. The focus is still on the local community – attacking America can be used to demonstrate a group’s strength, but they demonstrate that strength as part of the system of violence to control their co-religionists in the Middle East.
This is why it’s so important that we revise our conception of terrorism, including calling mass shootings acts of terrorism. As long as we only identify our tangential relationship to terrorism as ‘real’ terrorism, we’re never going to be able to do anything to seriously address the problem. We need to let the communities who are the direct targets take the lead, offering them protection and resource to address the problem. More than that, as white, middle class Americans, we need to accept the idea that those responsible will often look and sound like us, and that those people are using the same protection and privilege that make us only occasional victims of violence to perpetuate that violence. Until we’re ready to accept this uncomfortable reality, we’ll never be able to make a systematic change to end terrorism.
 Obviously intersectionality matters here – both white women and white queer people can still be the targets of systematic violence. However, I’d argue that even here, there is much more institutional protection to defend these communities from violence than for nonwhite communities in the US. If nothing else, the state apparatus meant to defend people from violence – the police – is still predominately going to help a white woman or queer person who is seen to be vulnerable or in danger, which is not the case for nonwhite communities.