The Spectacle Blog

Defining Terror

By on 8.9.12 | 12:33PM

Yesterday, I found myself reading about the gunman who unleashed his savage prejudice in a hail of bullets at the Wisconsin Sikh temple. This line caught my eye:

"Federal authorities have said they are treating the attack as a possible act of domestic terrorism." (Emphasis mine)

Under the defining terms of the Patriotic Act, domestic terror strikes when a person acts to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or "affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping." Apparently, such acts are not to be confused with the "workplace violence" witnessed at the Fort Hood -- as Aaron notes, a willful and appalling misdiagnosis if ever there was one. Tragic consequences aside, more than ten years after 9/11 we remain alternately unwilling and unable to apply sharp designations to acts of terror, here at home.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Errol Louis suggests the following:

"The mass killing of six innocent worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., is a loud wakeup call to government leaders to rethink and reorganize a domestic anti-terrorism unit that was discredited, defunded, and largely disbanded after it wound up in a political firestorm in 2009."

Fair enough. But it's well past time to admit what we're dealing with on the domestic terror front.

The discourse of terror demands critical analysis, because language does more than simply mirror reality -- it co-constitutes it. Our shared systems of meaning are normalized through language and practice. Government officials deliberately cherry-pick these terms to stage-manage public anxiety or, alternately, anesthesthatize our fears.

I happen to agree with Aaron that government officials and agency bureaucrats have done handsprings to avoid labeling some domestic terrorists -- who just so happen to be Muslim -- as such. Why is this the case?

Conservatives of various stripes have regularly complained that President Obama has neutered our post-9/11 lexicon. As PolitiFact.com demonstrates, Obama made a "conscious and deliberate decision early in his presidency to avoid the phrase "war on terror" in favor of more precise language.

Said the president:

"...the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name."

In all fairness, I can appreciate that statement. Terror, by definition, is the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. Broad-brush strokes like "radical Islamic terrorism" and "the war on terror" are terrifically indistinct; however, they serve as effective and forceful reminders of the threat of global terrorism -- handy political vernacular to have in one's holster.

On the other hand, one could write a book on the critical differences between radical Sunni and Shi'a ideology, approach and objective. They should no more be lumped together than the IRA with the Shining Path. And I'll agree that it's unhelpful to add fuel to al-Qaeda's fire by fulfilling the prophesy of an American war against Islam, with language that co-constitutes such a state of affairs.

With that said, why construct euphemisms to excuse Nidal Malik Hassan, while stretching Wade Michael Page on the discursive rack of "domestic terror?" Now Conor Friedersdorf may be correct that the "American majority is naturally loath to focus its attention on a terrorist who looks, talks, and dresses as they do," but the Obama administration has shown no such disinclination.

Quite the contrary.

In fact, the DHS/I&A report "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence and Radicalization and Recruitment" concluded:

"...white supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy." (h/t Anne Rose Strasser )

The report went on to suggest that veterans, in particular, may be targeted for recruitment and radicalization.

Note, that this is the same administration that suggested that softening the discussion of Islamic radicalization hinged on the fact(s) that:

"Our enemy is not 'terrorism' because terrorism is but a tactic. Our enemy is not 'terror' because terror is a state of mind, and as Americans we refuse to live in fear."

What's clear is that this administration is politically biased in its discursive production of identities, enemies and the formation of our collective understanding of "terror." And I'd prefer to see the word dropped, once and for all, rather than have it leveled -- singularly -- as a political project.

The Obama administration should make up its mind.

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