05262020What's Hot:

The Interpreter: Terrorist or Disturbed Loner? The Contentious Politics of a Label

The question of how to talk about and treat those two forms of violence overlaps with sensitive issues related to the integration of Muslim communities into Western societies.

As attacks against Muslims have risen, many have been labeled something other than terrorism. For Muslim victims, this seemed to confirm suspicions that society sees them as potential threats more readily than as fellow citizens to be protected.

Civil rights groups say the hesitation in labeling anti-Muslim violence as terrorism is part of the same anti-Muslim bias that manifests in, for example, policing and hiring discrimination.

But other factors play a role as well. Formal definitions of terrorism typically rest on motive, which can be tricky to determine, particularly in the immediate moments after an attack.

According to British law, an attack is deemed terrorism when it seeks “to influence the government” or “intimidate the public” with the aim of “advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.”

Louise Richardson, an Irish political scientist, has posed a similar definition: “Terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes.”

Islamist attacks often seem to meet this standard more easily.

Transnational groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda are eager to claim faraway attacks and have the public relations machinery to do so. Their reach online often means the attacker will have visited their sites or forums, allowing the groups to claim even loners as their own.

Far-right extremists tend to be less organized. Groups are smaller and online communities more fractured. Though attacks are rising, often there is no group to claim them. The police may fall back on calling the incident a hate crime, which is easier to prove.

An attack can be both. When Omar Mateen killed 49 people last year at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., he appeared motivated by animus against gay people as well as the political agenda of Islamic State, to which he had sworn allegiance. The F.B.I. called the attack terrorism as well as a hate crime.

Post 9/11, the Language of War

Over time, as this disparity has fed into Muslims’ sense of being second class, the issue of labeling terrorism has grown more charged.

Calling an attack terrorism has become a way of asserting that the targeted community feels terrorized and of asking society to take that threat as seriously as it does other forms of terrorism.

The debate is less about legalistic definitions than a way to examine which groups society is willing to protect, and what kind of violence it is willing to tolerate.

And it is a reaction against the politics around Islamist terrorism.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Western policy makers have described terrorism in the language of war, with President George W. Bush saying Al Qaeda sought to destroy “our way of life.”

Though leaders like Mr. Bush were careful to distinguish extremist groups from mainstream Islam, some rights groups warned that the political climate contributed to anti-Muslim violence.

Ever since, some see the speed with which Muslim attackers are called terrorists as proof that Muslims are considered outsiders. When episodes of right-wing violence are not labeled terrorism, that is taken as proof of a deadly double standard.

For others, any hesitation at labeling an Islamist attack as terrorism demonstrates that political correctness prevents policy makers from fully addressing the threat.

Years of seeing terrorism as a foreign threat, and of arguments that Muslim communities must address the roots of extremism, has freighted the term with accusations that extend beyond the attacker to his or her community.

As far-right violence has risen, accusations of responsibility once leveled at Muslims are now directed at white communities and right-wing politics broadly.

Experts dispute that entire social groups can be blamed for terrorism. Still, some worry that far-right extremism is under-addressed as leaders strain to avoid the appearance of bias against mainstream conservatives — a consideration not so easily afforded to Muslims.

Micah Zenko, who studies terrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in 2014, “We treat ‘terrorism’ in the common vernacular differently because it is ascribed to foreigners who are unlike us, whereas similarly savage behavior conducted by fellow Americans is a reflection of us.”

When a Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism leaked in 2009, it prompted accusations that Democrats were persecuting conservatives. The report was withdrawn and the office that had produced it quietly dismantled.

A Sense of Hierarchy

When far-right violence is described as a hate crime or the act of a disturbed loner, even if that is true, it can exacerbate a sense among targeted communities that they matter less.

In 2015, Dylann S. Roof, a South Carolina man who had once worn white supremacist patches, killed nine people at a mostly black church.

The Black Lives Matter movement had spent two years campaigning against violence against African-Americans, particularly those killed in encounters with the police. Mr. Roof’s attack, they argued, demonstrated the threat facing black people.

If Islamist terrorism had inspired national mobilizations and sweeping policy changes, they argued, so should violence against blacks. And the crime appeared to neatly fit terrorism’s legal definition.

When Mr. Roof was charged with hate crimes, rather than terrorism, social media and rights groups angrily denounced the decision. It seemed to confirm that the government took violence against black people less seriously and would refuse to fully tackle far-right extremism.

Legal scholars said prosecutors likely chose hate crime charges because they are significantly easier to prove than terrorism charges, reducing the risk of an acquittal. Federal terrorism charges are tailored to certain acts, like airplane hijackings, rather than shootings like Mr. Roof’s.

Shortly after, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch called hate crimes “the original domestic terrorism.”

It was an acknowledgment that “terrorism” has different meanings in the courtroom and in society more broadly and that its use carries meaning beyond describing a particular act. But it hardly quieted the outrage that, as long as deeper issues remain, seems bound to recur.

Source: NYT > World

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic