Every time there is an incident of mass murder in the Muslim world caused by Muslims, Western media clamors to hear Muslim voices denouncing the incident. After Muslims issue such denunciations, Western pundits pick and choose whom to review. Frequently, they find some Muslim commentator who asserts the killers were misguided, deranged, sick individuals. Western media sources then pounce on such statements to claim “Muslims are divided on terrorism” or “Muslims fail to take a strong stand against terrorism.” The most xenophobic assert that “Muslims support terrorism by their weak condemnation.”
Quite unlike America, where every time there is an incident of mass murder in the Western world caused by Westerners, at least some symphathetic voice in Western media finds the perpetrator a “mentally ill” individual. And then changes the subject.
Responses to the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina now focus upon removing the Confederate flag (the perpetrator allegedly hoped to ignite a civil war by killing black people), gun control, attacks on Christians (FoxNews), and numerous other angles. “Terrorism” by white Americans against non-whites is a matter of debate.
Washington Post writer Philip Bump argues that we shouldn’t call Dylann Roof a terrorist. It’s not a very convincing argument, amounting to
…our insistence that terrorism is somehow a higher order of evil than simply murdering elderly people for being black even as they held their Bibles in a church. It implies that his mass murder was one thing, but that his scaring us was made things more problematic.
Let’s review the actual argument after speculating for a second: if Bump were a Muslim, say from Qatar, and if Mr. Roof were also a Muslim, then the simple headline would suffice to indict Muslims generally as “supporting terrorism” – at least in some corners of American media. Those corners wouldn’t bother assessing the argument.
But let’s try to do so, as a token of respect. Bump is not “justifying” terrorism, but arguing against wantonly using the label. As a white American commentator reviewing the facts involving a white American shooter, Bump seeks to direct policy towards resolving this problem and avoiding simplistic labels. It’s a fair point (one raised by many Muslims, who are routinely derided when they raise it) – the goal is not just to demonize an evil act, but to frame the act in a matter helpful toward preventing and addressing it.
The problem of terrorism, and why it is a “higher order of evil” has little to do with the possible “fear” created by any “terroristic attack.” Terrorists often (but not always) hope their actions will result in broader wars that ultimately serve their agenda (e.g., Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, sparking World War I – a war that resulted in the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – or Osama bin Laden, who helped set the U.S. on a path toward invading Iraq, which he hoped would result in the destruction of America, just as he believed the invasion of Afghanistan caused the destruction of the Soviet Union).
Terrorists seek to mobilize misguided, blunt anger to direct their enemy to do things their enemy otherwise would not do. It is a political act calculated to magnify numerous other evils. That sort of premeditation renders it a very different sort of crime than murder.
Fringe individuals on both the right (Roof, McVeigh, Nichols), the left (e.g., the Galleanists responsible for a wave of bombings in 1919), and others – perceive that something sacred it being taken from them (their country, their women, their faith). Some may expect others to rise up and follow their example, but most expect the forces that they believe to be attacking them to do so bluntly and exhaustively – they calculate that their enemies response will prompt further bloodshed.
When Bump argues Americans frequently use the term “terrorist” to mean “Muslim, foreign,” – he argues for reining in the use of the term. A better response is the cold, simple, indiscriminate application of the term in every case that fits – including the many “white male” perpetrators – and then a colder, logical assessment of the number of perpetrators and the potential threats.
Once all the threats are assessed, calm voices may ask: what is the appropriate investment of resources to challenge specific terrorists?
18 U.S.C. Section 2331, defines “domestic terrorism” as activities which:
1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
2. Appear intended (a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (c) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
The FBI has reported that over 40% of domestic terrorism in America was the work of Latino gangs, around 25% the work of left wing extremists (typically, property attacks), and 30% the work of right-wing extremists (typically, direct attacks on individuals – like Mr. Roof). Less than 6% is the work of Muslim extremists.
How does DHS allocate its resources? The Pentagon?What portion is directed at Muslim extremists, v. other threats?
Groups like Al-Qaeda and the Daesh (the self-called “Islamic State”) are nasty. But there are endless forms of nasty – and too many Americans believe (mistakenly!) that “most terrorists are Muslims” – simply because that’s the only report they hear. Once upon a time, many Americans believed “most criminals are black” – which was also never been true. A media camera fixates upon an “evil other” – obscuring the many evils closer to home from people who look like us.
That sort of preoccupation coalesces into stereotypes about certain groups, driving lousy policy and worse law. One does well to subject any such policies and laws to “strict scrutiny” – and to eliminate them unless they are absolutely, clearly justified.
The notion of “strict scrutiny” first arose in America as a constitutional law doctrine when examining the internment of Japanese Americans in parts of the West – California claimed it was required to protect against a “threat.” Oddly, Hawaii, which had actually been attacked during Pearl Harbor, and which had a far larger Japanese population, never felt so threatened and never interned them.
One does better to grow up, and overcome fears by looking honestly at other people, coming to know who they are, how they see the world, and realizing, those “others” – by and large – aren’t all that different from ourselves.