There has been much talk about Dylann Roof who apparently killed nine people at a Bible study being held at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Many on the left want to call it terrorism and think that it is a sign of hypocrisy that it isn’t. I am highly sympathetic to that complaint. But I find myself coming at it from the other side. “Terrorism” is one of those words that describes nothing. Its use only serves to separate the world into the good people (us) and the bad people (them).
In the 1980s, I remember that the US press had no problem referring to those fighting against the government in the Salvadoran Civil War as “terrorists.” Meanwhile, those fighting against the far more legitimate Sandinista government in Nicaragua were “freedom fighters.” We see the same kind of thing today with countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The former is an ally, so the best gloss is put on everything it does. The former is nominally an enemy, so the worst gloss is put on everything it does. This isn’t surprising coming from the US government. Why it is that our “free” press goes right along with it has always been something of a mystery to me.
It may be just an extension of what Alexis De Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” We believe in the freedom to dissent — as long as no one really exercises it. I have long wondered if we don’t continue to have a nominally free press only because our press is in fact as compliant as Pravda. And that takes us back to the word “terrorism” and its magical properties.
Since I was a little kid, I’ve thought that terrorism was the use of violence to keep people in a constant state of terror and thus make them compliant to the political will of those using the terrorism. I looked up the word on Merriam-Webster, and that is more or less what it says: “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” But this definition is extremely problematic because by it, the United States is the biggest terrorist group in the world. The people in Afghanistan who have drones constantly flying over them are indeed — and very explicitly — being terrorized.
And it isn’t just the United States. Modern warfare has changed. Look at the following table from the documentary War Made Easy.
|World War I||10%|
|World War II||50%|
Civilians have always been killed in war. But now, war is not even primarily about two armies fighting against each other; it is about two countries (groups, whatever) fighting against each other. Most people just want to live their little lives, but if they live in the wrong place, war comes to them. And that is terrorism — pure and simple.
I don’t really think that Dylann Roof walking into that church and killing people is an act of terrorism — as horrific as it was. But I also don’t think that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s shooting spree in Ottawa was terrorism either. And I certainly don’t think all these FBI created “crimes” are terrorism. They all just seem to be disturbed people doing the kinds of things that disturbed people do. But that doesn’t mean that I’m complaining about calling Dylann Roof a terrorist — because he certainly qualifies better thant Zehaf-Bibeau, who no one in the mainstream media had trouble calling a terrorist.
I’d like to get rid of the word “terrorist.” All it does is clarify what side we think any criminal is on. And in the current American context, it is patently racist. If Dylann Roof were a Muslim, people would be calling his murders terrorism. Maybe in the final analysis, people would change their minds. But the calculus is clear enough: a violent Muslim is by default a terrorist, even if he is really just a confused crazy person. Labeling something “terrorism” doesn’t tell us anything about it — except that a Muslim was involved.