Terrorists: Some you see, some you don’t

By Banu Ozkazanc-Pan.

The recent bombings and acts of terror in Boston left hundreds wounded, dozens disabled, and four dead. These events elicited a spectrum of responses including outrage, fear, elation, grieving, and nationalism and reignited debate over ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ immigrants. Such reactions to terrorism may seem natural but raise interesting questions–why are the events in Boston conceptualized as terrorists attacking the U.S. when the unceremonious death or capture of other mass murderers in the U.S. do not invoke nationalism?  Why did people chant “USA, USA, USA” in response to the death of Bin Laden and after the capture of Dzokhar Tsarnaev but not after the capture of Jared Lee Loughner? Are these events equivalent? To understand these reactions, we have to consider why certain people are labeled terrorists, how violent attacks are seen in the U.S., and how assumptions about terrorism lead to calls for armed interventions in different parts of the world and at home.  One way to examine these questions is to focus on identities.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, the U.S. and Western allies launched a military campaign against Al Qaeda and Bin Laden under the label of “Operation Enduring Freedom”. The main goal was to capture or terminate the terrorist leader and his organization—the corollary was that women who had been brutalized and marginalized under the purdah perpetuated by the Taliban would also benefit as such an intervention would eventually lead to their freedom as well. What’s worth noting here are the ways in which the identities of the men were constructed by U.S. media and how these identities provided a mental template for the kinds of people that should be considered terrorists.

In the following days, months, and years, understanding terror in the U.S. became equated with producing an idea of the terrorist who was, by all accounts, a young Muslim male of Middle Eastern background, radicalized by his environment, filled with hatred of our freedom and the West, and a foreigner. The differentiation of these men from America and ‘real Americans’ were based on assumptions around their ethnicity, religion, citizenship and immigration status, and a gendered ideology of nationalism that equated and valorized U.S. military interventions as spreading democratic ideals around the world and freeing the oppressed. This resulted in a public discourse that equated terrorists with young Muslim males and terrorism with Islam.

We saw the same scenario repeat itself in Boston these past weeks as the Tsarnaev brothers became “ethnic Chechens” in media reports in what Sarah Kendzior calls the demonization of an entire ethnicity. Such reports focused on the potential role Tamerlan Tsarnaev had in a triple homicide that took place in 2011 “on a highly symbolic date for Islamic extremists: the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon”. By labeling these men as terrorists, we could understand their behavior.

Yet labeling these brothers as terrorists obscures violent acts that take place everyday in the U.S. and around the world but are not called terrorism. In the U.S., these include mass killings in public and private spaces deemed safe—our schools, movie theaters, malls, and places of work. The majority of these killings are undertaken by young white males who have access to guns, assault weapons, and ammunition and are able to purchase or gain access to these weapons of death and destruction without raising suspicion. As John Cassidy asks, what would be different if the Tsarnaevs were Boston shooters?

Here is the problem: why are we so willing to call the behaviors and acts of violence committed by young men “terrorism” when they are undertaken by those who are different (i.e., Muslim) and “shootings” when undertaken by white young men. Yes, there are exceptions to this example but the broad public tendency these days is to designate a terrorist those we deem foreign or different. In fact, the now ubiquitous slogan popularized by Homeland Security, “if you see something, say something”, reflects this very idea. To see something underscores people’s assumptions with respect to who is a terrorist and works to distance ‘us’ from ‘them’.

By defining terrorists as such, we are unable to have a conversation about the targeted killings of women and children perpetuated by young white males. If these acts do not constitute terrorism, then we need to reconsider our definition of terrorism in this country. Violence against women in the U.S. is not a source of national outrage despite the fact that rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, and daily acts of deprivation are a reality for millions of women. Moreover, the U.S. has the highest number of firearms and gun related female homicides compared to twenty-four other high-income nations. In the U.S., an average of eight children and teens under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day.

These acts of violence can be curtailed through policies that address gun control in the U.S.. They continue to take place as the NRA adeptly focuses national attention on individual constitutional rights rather than institutionalized violence sanctioned by profit-making gun manufacturers. The lack of federal government intervention to prevent gun-related deaths is matched by the staggering cost of the massive military-style mobilization and deployment of resources we witnessed in the aftermath of the Boston bombings and shootings.

If labeling acts of violence based on the ideology and identities of attackers, such as Islamic terrorism, mobilizes individuals and resources to the extent that we saw in Boston, perhaps we should call attention to the acts of violence perpetuated by young white males and aided by the ideologies of the gun lobby as American terrorism—the everyday acts of violence that constitute terror in the daily lives of Americans. This provocative label might prove useful in addressing the incessant forms of violence that can be deterred or altogether prevented if we open our eyes to the fact that we enable certain terrorist activities to continue to take place while being outraged by others.

Related Posts:

Marc Lavine: “Reflections on the Boston Marathon tragic events (Introduction)”
Mary Still: “Crowdsourced social order in Boston: technology replaces relationships?”

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7 thoughts on “Terrorists: Some you see, some you don’t

  1. I think its true to say we need to be careful who we call terrorist as some you see and some you don’t. However I think those you don’t see are the families and co conspirators of those that commit terrorism or those that commit fraud and send money back to their radical groups in other countries. It seems who ever wrote this article is trying to blame everything on white males when there are people of many colors that commit crimes all the time and of course some of them are white. However the fact that Obama and so many are trying to use the stupid acts of some to take the rights and guns away from the rest of us in absurd. We are not going to give up our guns or our rights, so the liberals need to shut up and get over it. As giving up our guns would only leave guns in the hands of criminals and the law enforcement which would leave the general public open for attack and vulnerable. I am sure those in power would love to have a country of defenseless people, well that is not going to happen. An it will certainly never happen in the South, much less Texas. The liberals want to tell you making guns illegal will keep the criminals from having them. Well if that were the case making drugs illegal would keep us from having drug dealers, we you can see that is not the case. Its like they say,”If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.” An its almost humorous that those in power and liberals try and blame guns for the stupid acts of some. In many cases like the most recent shooting the young man who killed so many was over medicated and needed mental help. So the system or medical people dealing with this young man and his family are to blame not the guns this crazy person used. But I don’t appreciate all the talk trying to single out young white males and act like they are some how treated differently. As all are the same in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the law. But terrorist and those working with them are still a huge problem as is home safety. An until we live in a society where you can leave your doors unlocked and there is not crime there will be guns in the hands of those that need to protect themselves no matter how much liberals cry about it. Bet the wish we would just give them our money and our guns as then they could control everything. Not gonna happen though.

  2. “Science begins where begin to measure” (D. I Mendeleev)

    Just count the real quantity of murders caused by “terrrorrists” and by usual kind and politically correct criminals, and then make any conclusions.

    And please not touch NRA – those guys are living in the real world. Who knows, maybe they will save your life once. The problem is far not the gun ownership, but poor working law, so direct all questions to US government.

    And about Tsarnaev brothers… If not mistaking, our police warned your one about them, but who are they and who are they? Of course US propaganda teaches not just spread poor working “democratic ideals” via export of wars and revolutions, but not listen those “supposed enemies” at all, so US police had no choice – just ignore this a warning.

    So please, get back to the real world, maybe even throw your TV set through the window if it tries to fool you…

  3. Banu is spot on about the misuse of language. Calling the Tsarnaev brothers ‘terrorists’ infers that white culprits in school schootings and the like in the US (and even a character like Norway’s Anders Breivik) must be ‘something else’. Ditto those who in the past challenged community authority in the violent ‘mid-April synchronicity’ events in the US. Whatever these folk were, it is assumed they weren’t ‘terrorists’, as that term is booked for ‘Muslim extremists’. Looked at from a non-US angle, the narrow use of the concept ‘terror’, and also the linked term ‘evil’ – as in ‘axis of evil’ and, before that, ‘evil empire’ – has damaged world perception of the US. Because it points only to ‘others’ – in contrast to ‘Americans’ claiming to live in the ‘land of the free’, in the land whose operations for ‘enduring freedom’ make it ‘indispensable’, with its assertion of values so different from those of the awful ‘others’.

    Describing as ‘terrorists’ perpetrators of savage acts against Americans, i.e. people from ‘other’ lands such as the Tsarnaev brothers, assumes that they can’t have any real ‘reason’ to act as they do. Of course we reject brutality in defence of any ideal, whether committed by Islamic extremists or, say, by the IRA. But that does not mean they all lack a ’cause’. Contemporary followers of the one-time IRA, who (along with Unionist gangs, let us recall) committed and still commit violence, are responding to a postcolonial situation, to the fact that British one-time imperial rule split the economically more advanced North away from the rest of Ireland. The fact that the one-time IRA commandant Martin McGuinness now pleads for meaningful coexistence is seen by some as betrayal. Obviously they are wrong – most Republicans in Ireland understand this. But even so, their reasons do have a starting point.

    Or take the 7th July 2005 bombers, young Muslim men, born in England, who set off bombs in the London metro (52 killed and many injured), and the statement one of them recorded before their horrific deed. It was a response to the start of the Iraq/Afghanistan war (along with Guantanamo), with the Israel-Palestine conflict lurking in the background. He said: “Your democratically-elected governments continuously perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security you will be our targets —. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation” (Wikipedia). Makes you think!

    What made the Boston bombs so grim, and the ‘Boston strong’ reaction to it so necessary, was the contrast with the Boston marathon and the peaceful public holiday. Obviously this destructiveness was unacceptable too, as much as that in London or Northern Ireland. But ‘evil’? and ‘terror’? Where does this kind of language get us? Our reaction to such situations should rather call for perception, analysis, and of course commitment to find answers.

    • John, thanks so much for your comment on the blog. Indeed, the issue is the production of particular people and identities as ‘evil’ and ‘terrorist’ while adopting an almost medicalized social pathology lens in others who also commit acts of terror. Recently, there was an NPR piece on the shootings in New Orleans during the Mother’s Day parade and the author discussed how this shooting got such little attention based on the fact that the shooters and most of the victims were Black–in effect, this was seen as simply another case of gang violence and ‘ignored’ to some extent by the media. The point is that these kinds of tragedies are everyday occurrences in the U.S. yet we focus on those that have players whom we deem as foreign. These days, this notion of foreign is based on ideas about the Islamic religion and coupled with assumptions about gender and ethnicity. Your point about the London bombings is quite cogent–this week, there was another attach in London by the ‘same’ kinds of people. Yet I’m wondering what other kinds of attacks in London and elsewhere go unnoticed because somehow the attacks are not case in the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mentality. It seems that by saying we’re at war, we can justify all kinds of atrocities and injustices and then become disgusted when the tables are turned. Violence does beget more violence–what would an end to this cycle look like? And from whose point? Finally, your discussion made me think about a piece I heard on NPR and written about recently in the Washington Times. See http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/may/10/assata-shakur-terrorist/
      Aren’t there so many other cop killers who don’t get labelled as terrorists? Who gets to decide that a killing, murder or attack is based on political ideology, and is this what makes a terrorist? It seems that if taking up arms based on political ideology is terrorism, well, isn’t that what the NRA always claims is their reason for existence–just in case they have to defend their way of life against oppression by the U.S. government? Does a constitutional right mitigate what would otherwise be labelled terrorism? Then again, the NRA also claims to be the longest standing civil rights organization in the U.S. but I guess that’s a whole another conversation!

  4. Banu raises an important question. Are there hidden assumptions about what is typically labeled (and treated as) ‘terrorism’ vs. a ‘shooting’? I agree that associating ‘terror’ with ‘foreign’ seems to serve as a protection mechanism, i.e. terrorism is ‘Un-American’ (or Anti-American) whereas mass shootings might be an extreme form of violence, but based on ‘American’ principles (the right to possess guns). So I agree with Banu here. But what do we gain from calling any type of violence (happening in America) ‘terrorism’ as Banu seems to suggest? Some have defined terrorism as a politically/ideologically motivated, intentional, yet ‘illegitimate’ act of violence with a symbolic message beyond the actual act. Some have also called ‘terrorism’ a particular form of communication. Taking this more narrow definition, are we still seeing ‘terrorism’ everywhere? Let’s take the very tragic Newtown shootings as an example. If this indeed was a form of ‘terrorism’ as Banu indirectly suggests, who would be the ‘terrorist’ here? Adam Lanza? Did Adam Lanza have any kind of message? Was his act political or symbolic? Maybe not. And the other way around: Are the Tsarnaev brothers ‘regular killers’ rather than ‘terrorists’? Similar to a husband killing his wife, similar to a burglar shooting the owner of a shop? Were the Tsarnaev brothers entirely motivated by thrill, money, revenge, fame or hatred? Or did they maybe have – or at least carry – a political message? Of course boundaries are blurry. And many shooters elevate themselves by claiming a higher political purpose (e.g. the Norwegian Anders Breivik). Clearly, whether or not mass killings are called ‘terrorism’ does not make them more or less violent. And maybe we should not use the word ‘terror’ altogether is it does have a connotation of randomness and evil – in contrast to ‘legitimate’ and ‘controlled’ forms of violence such as death sentences, military interventions etc. So, I agree that labeling some things (rather than others) ‘terrorism’ can be distracting, but I also think it is important to take the symbolic dimension behind incidents such as the Boston bombings seriously. It helps us understand for example how and why radicalization happens, and how America’s global presence and dominance – military, symbolic, political – may promote radicalization. Because it takes much more to radicalize two brothers who came to America, enjoying many facets of freedom, including the freedom of religion. Is it the fact that the U.S. continues to take an influential role in the Middle East, beyond legitimation by the international community? Is it because of the way Muslims have been treated and ‘demonized’ by the U.S. as Banu also suggests? And if – on the contrary – the Boston bombings were just an attack against the ‘free world’, why is it that it happened in the U.S. and not let’s say in Canada? So, whether or not we use the word ‘terror’, there are many questions regarding the symbolic dimension of the Boston bombings which are yet to be answered – and whose answer is important to prevent such acts from happening in the future.

  5. Pingback: Crowdsourced social order in Boston: technology replaces relationships? | Organizations and Social Change

  6. Pingback: Reflections on the Boston Marathon tragic events | Organizations and Social Change

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