Back after Dylann Roof went on his killing spree, I wrote, “Terrorism” Signifies “Us” and “Them,” Nothing More. In it, I reflected on the claim of many fellow liberals — which I’m sympathetic to — that Roof’s murders were acts of terrorism. I hate the word “terrorism.” In modern usage, it means nothing. It is just a signifier to label the violet acts of some people illegitimate while papering over the violent acts of ourselves and those who we think of as being on our side.
So now we have another case that the American media system has no problem calling terrorism: Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four marines (and wounded three others) at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is hard not to believe that if the perpetrator had been named John Lee Morris, that it wouldn’t be have been call terrorism. And that people wouldn’t be wondering why it was Morris did such a horrible thing. But instead, Abdulazeez did it, he’s a Muslim, there’s no more to talk about it. That’s just the way those people are.
But apart from my general problem with the word and its clear racism, is this a case of terrorism? Glenn Greenwald asked an excellent question about this, The Chattanooga Shootings: Can Attacking Military Sites of a Nation at War be “Terrorism”? In this example, the killing was not indiscriminate. Abdulazeez was killing people in the US military (although he also shot at police who responded to his attacks). That’s not to say that his crimes were any less horrible or that they were justified. It is just to say that his crimes were not indiscriminate and not intending to make the general populace terrorized.
Greenwald provided another, even better example: Martin Couture Rouleau.
Again, the issue here is not to claim that these acts are justified. There are all kinds of horrible acts that people commit that are not classified as terrorism. But if the word “terrorism” is to mean anything, then it can’t be applied to just any political violence that we don’t like. But the way that the word is used today, it is even worse than that. It seems to mean nothing more than “violence committed by people with Muslim sounding names.”
This isn’t just about my general regard for words. The use of words have powerful signifying effects on society. By applying “terrorism” only to the acts of Muslims, it tarnishes all Muslims. Nothing could be more clearly racist. No one argued that Dylann Roof’s monstrous act was indicative of his whiteness. Now, I understand, if pressed, people will qualify what Abdulazeez did as the act of a radical Muslim or whatever. But that just highlights the power of words like terrorism. No one thinks about it. It’s a word that is used in an entirely racist manner: people just “know” that a terrorist is a Muslim like they “know” that a welfare queen is black. And these are the assumptions that cripple us as a society.