Shooting Sprees vs Organized Terrorist Attacks
We treat violence by lone individuals differently than organized violence. Race, religion, and national origin have nothing to do with that.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, an argument has arisen that we treat acts of mass murder committed by foreigners as evil terrorism while acts committed by white Americans are treated as simple crimes. David Sirota makes the case for Salon (“Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American: There is a double standard: White terrorists are dealt with as lone wolves, Islamists are existential threats“):
As we now move into the official Political Aftermath period of the Boston bombing — the period that will determine the long-term legislative fallout of the atrocity — the dynamics of privilege will undoubtedly influence the nation’s collective reaction to the attacks. That’s because privilege tends to determine: 1) which groups are — and are not — collectively denigrated or targeted for the unlawful actions of individuals; and 2) how big and politically game-changing the overall reaction ends up being.
This has been most obvious in the context of recent mass shootings. In those awful episodes, a religious or ethnic minority group lacking such privilege would likely be collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse) if some of its individuals comprised most of the mass shooters. However, white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings — even though most come at the hands of white dudes.
Likewise, in the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.
This strikes me as incredibly muddled. Major Nidal Malik Hasan is being treated as an ordinary criminal, despite not being a white dude and proudly proclaiming not only jihadist motivations for his shooting spree but claiming membership in al Qaeda. Why? Because he’s perceived as a lone wolf and his connections to al Qaeda are at best ephemeral.
Timothy McVeigh, the white dude behind the Oklahoma City bombing, was treated as a terrorist, tried, convicted, and put to death. His connections to white supremacist militia groups were touted by no less than the President of the United States. Even so, it was determined that he was the mastermind behind the operation and that he carried it out with the help of one or two others; there was no broad militia plot to continue blowing up federal buildings.
The 9/11 plot was different. It was organized and perpetrated by a well-financed, well organized group that had committed numerous previous attacks on United States targets—including a United States Navy vessel, two US embassies, and a previous attempt on the World Trade Center—and had issued a manifesto declaring a war on our country as part of a larger plan to take control of the Arab world. While many wanted—and still want—to treat this as a law enforcement matter, the scale, severity, and organization led us to treat it primarily as an act of war.
Even so, it should be noted, President Bush took great and immediate pains to emphasize repeatedly that this was a war against extremist groups with global reach, not a religion with a billion peaceful adherents. While many transgressions occurred, he also took great care to ensure that the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan was seen as an attack against the Taliban and al Qaeda and not the peaceful Afghan population.
“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” writes author Tim Wise. “White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.”
The perpetrators of 9/11 were brown Muslims from Saudi Arabia. We did not nuke Mecca. Indeed, we continued our alliance with the Saudi government and resurrected an uneasy alliance with Muslim Pakistan in order to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. There are dozens of Muslim-majority states on the planet. We’re targeting only those that harbor al Qaeda—plus Iraq, settling a longstanding beef with Saddam Hussein.
If the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing turns out to be a member of the IRA, we’ll arrest him. If he turns out to be a member of al Qaeda but remains in the United States . . . we’ll arrest him. Which is what we did with the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. And Hassan. And Richard Reid (“the shoe bomber”). And Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab (the “underwear bomber”). And John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (the “Beltway snipers”). And many, many more non-white perpetrators of terrorism and mass murder who were reachable by traditional law enforcement.
Now, it’s true that the public reaction is somewhat different. There is indeed a cohort that blames all Muslims for Muslim terrorism while few, indeed blame all Christians for the acts of McVeigh or various abortion clinic bombers or mass shooters. There’s an element of “privilege” there. But it’s one borne of familiarity with the known versus the ignorance and fear of the unknown.
Though FBI data show fewer terrorist plots involving Muslims than terrorist plots involving non-Muslims, America has mobilized a full-on war effort exclusively against the prospect of Islamic terrorism. Indeed, the moniker “War on Terrorism” has come to specifically mean “War on Islamic Terrorism,” involving everything from new laws like the Patriot Act, to a new torture regime, to new federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to mass surveillance of Muslim communities.
By contrast, even though America has seen a consistent barrage of attacks from domestic non-Islamic terrorists, the privilege and double standards baked into our national security ideologies means those attacks have resulted in no systemic action of the scope marshaled against foreign terrorists. In fact, it has been quite the opposite — according to Darryl Johnson, the senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, the conservative movement backlash to merely reporting the rising threat of such domestic terrorism resulted in DHS seriously curtailing its initiatives against that particular threat.
Again, Sirota conflates our reaction to al Qaeda—an incredibly well financed group out of reach of American law enforcement that continually plots and carries out attacks against Americans—with our reaction to acts committed by brown people. Yet, in every instance not involving al Qaeda—and, indeed, many instances involving al Qaeda operatives caught on American or friendly soil—we use the same criminal justice approach we use against white dudes.
The “consistent barrage of attacks from domestic non-Islamic terrorists” are actually a series of completely unrelated one-off criminal acts. Indeed, the vast majority are mere wishes to commit criminal acts. The only connection is that they’re pissed off right wingers, many also white supremacists.
By contrast, I would note, we treat the Ku Klux Klan as an organized terrorist group. Why? Because individual racist assholes who shot cops or plot to assassinate President Obama are an isolated, unpredictable threat. What are we going to do, arrest everyone who has ever used the word “nigger” just in case? But the Klan, like al Qaeda, is organized and persistent. They’re targetable as an ongoing criminal conspiracy.
If recent history is any guide, if the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident — one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates. Put another way, white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack.
But we’d treat it that way if the perpetrator is black or Hispanic or Asian-American.
The fact that some number of right wingers or gun nuts individually commit crimes might cause us to take some sort of collective action. For example, the recent series of isolated shooting sprees has reignited the debate over limiting the firepower available to ordinary citizens. But the fact that they’re tied together by a loose ideology doesn’t turn them into a conspiracy. They’re “isolated acts,” not because the perpetrators are overwhelmingly white males but because they’re, well, isolated. It’s the difference between ordinary street crime and Organized Crime. We treat the two very, very differently.