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.