Ali Abunima at The Electronic Intifada has written an article that I wish all Americans would read (even though I fear their reaction would be no better than it was to Marc Ambinder’s article), Obama’s Rush to Judgment: Was the Boston Bombing Really a “Terrorist” Act? The basis of his argument is that our definition of “terrorism” requires that the perpetrator being politically motivated. At this point, we don’t have any information indicating that this is the case so we should back off on the talk of terrorism.
There are two comparisons that I think are important. The first is that this could well be just another Columbine. As we now know, that crime was committed by one “clinically sadistic sociopath” who manipulated another who suffered from depression. When all the information comes out about the Tsarnaev brothers, I think we will at least see that dynamic going on. I will be surprised if the older brother didn’t have some “reason” for the attack, but I have a hard time believing it was really about it. Regardless, if it turns out they did the attack for al Qaida or Chechnya of the lack of Russian representation in USA Boxing, then it will be a terrorist attack. Until then, it isn’t.
Abunima as notes that the attack last August on the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is almost never referred to as a terrorist attack. But of course it was. I would go further: a lot of people still bristle at calling the Oklahoma City bombing a terrorist attack. What’s more, no one on the right wants to call abortion clinic bombings and assassinations terrorist attacks. That’s because in America, a “terrorist” is only a Muslim. This is, admittedly, strange. We have long known about terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and Spain. And Timothy McVeigh was executed before 9/11.
I think what is really going on is that Americans see people from the Middle East writ large (so large that India is included) as the enemy. And these people are all assumed to be Muslims (even though most of them aren’t). On Wonk Blog this morning, John Sides wrote about some of his research, Americans Who Distrust Muslims Are Likelier to Back the War on Terror. He started the article by displaying the following tweet from game show host Chuck Woolery who is saying what most Americans think:
One thing for sure. Muslims can’t seem to live in peace with anyone. Even each other. FACT.
— Chuck Woolery (@chuckwoolery) April 19, 2013
Sides went on to present data that shows that Americans find Muslims far more violent and untrustworthy than any other group, including blacks and Latinos (even though the rated them high in these regards too). It is extremely sad to see.
But in this way, I think I might disagree with Abunima’s concern about the tendency of Americans to call anything that Muslims do terrorist. I think the problem is that Americans hate Muslims and are eager to find anything to blame them for. Even still, I’m kind of hopeful. Over time, I think it will be like the LGBT community: as more and more people get to know Muslims, it will be harder to hate them. And it will be the same dynamic: the young and liberal will embrace them first and the old and conservative will be the hold outs.
None of this means we shouldn’t fight back against these unfair stereotypes. And I hate to think about the small scale terrorist attacks that are being perpetrated on American-Muslims right now. Remember, the Sikh Temple was attacked because the white supremacist thought the worshipers were Muslim. And that does make plain the fact that hatred of Muslims is racism pure and simple—unless they also hate all Basques and Northern Irish. That may provide a way forward.
Abunima is right, though: we need to push back on fools like Chuck Woolery who think Muslims are violent. Adam Lanza was a white guy who killed 27; I don’t think it is right to lay that on me just because I’m also white.