The Terrorist Who Looks Like You

This last week we have seen an outpouring of Islamophobia in the United States.  It has been predictable, in the wake of the attacks in Paris and the heightened attention being granted Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the United States and Europe.  It has also been heartbreaking, and has prompted some truly problematic rhetoric from high-profile individuals within this country.

Much of this rhetoric has been a reversion to the “Muslims are terrorists” argumentation we saw in the early 2000s.  Of course, this rhetoric doesn’t even come close to the reality of Islam: the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists (and I only even included a link there for those looking for further reading, not because I think this should require statistical substantiation).  There’s really no good argument as to why we allow people to assign this blanket label to practitioners of a major world religion because a very small subset uses the religion to justify their use of violence, when we do not do so for any other group.

The real explanation is, I suspect, that terrorists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia do not look like us, while those who commit acts of terror here in the US do.  But I would entreat those who claim that America’s problem comes from terrorists who identify as Muslims.  The terrorist that looks like you is a terrorist still, and domestic terror is certainly an ongoing and too-often invisible battle in the United States.

The argument I’ve heard in response to this is that “Islamic terrorists have a coordinated agenda, but violence in the United States is random”.  Certainly not all violence in the United States has to do with the perpetuation of particular agendas, but pretending that none of it does, just because a large amount is not carried out in the name of a specific group, is just ignoring the reality of racialized and gendered violence in the U.S.

Besides that, in case anyone had not noticed, violence is carried out in the name of organized hate groups like the KKK.  Just a few short months ago, attendees at a KKK rally in North Carolina were overheard discussing wiping out Black people in the state in response to the removal of the Confederate flag, a well-known symbol of racism and oppression in the American South. And the problem hardly ends with the KKK: from threats against African-American students at the University of Missouri to the anonymous threats made against students at Howard University in Washington, DC to those made at Michigan Tech, it no longer matters if there is a central organizing force.  The reality is that racialized violence in the United States does not appear to be going anywhere, and recent waves of threats at universities are indicative of a trend designed to frighten Black college students into missing classes and compromising their education.  If terrorism is the use of fear and violence to promote a political end, threats and violence against Black university students certainly seems to fit the mold.

Student leaders of Concerned Student 1950 address protesters at the University of Missouri demanding policies promoting greater inclusivity and safety for Black students

But white terrorism in the United States unfortunately doesn’t even end with the targeting of Black individuals; it extends very much to targeting institutions meant to foster community and support a way of life for people.  With recent threats against Black churches and Jewish synagogues in the news once again, it is important to remember that White supremacists in the U.S. have notoriously targeted places of worship, and have targeted all kinds of non-white groups plus Jewish Americans in their efforts to uphold a society dominated by white Christians.  These recent events should not be interpreted as isolated incidents divorced from any kind of broader narrative of violence: there is a substantial recent history of threats and violence against Black churches in the US, including numerous cases of arson, and threats against church members when congregations have made public statements about racial affairs.

That’s a whole lot of white Christian violence, without even touching on violence against the American Muslim community.  Hate crimes against Muslim Americans are still occurring at high rates, according to the FBI, and the Southern Poverty Law Center predicts that these numbers will continue to climb through 2015.  The shootings in Chapel Hill, NC, were just one recent high-profile example; there have been numerous crimes against Muslim individuals, not to mention threats against a large number of mosques in the United States and harassment of mosque members or defacement of the facilities.

Just for good measure, I want to include a mention of anti-choice violence in the United States, which is alarmingly common and not treated in our discussions as terrorism.  Threats against the lives of medical professionals and clinics, even in light of the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, continues to pervade this country as anti-abortion activists work to prevent individuals from seeking desired and legal medical services.  Intimidation tactics and even direct acts of violence have been utilized in the name of being pro-life, and while we treat it just as the clash of ideas, it is certainly far more menacing than a simple debate.

Lastly, but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the prevalence of white male violence across the United States.  Statistically speaking, white men are the most likely to commit mass shootings.  97% of school shooters in recent years have been male, and 79% have been white, numbers too great to be a statistical accident.  Many experts assert that toxic masculinity is a major contributor to male violence, and that privilege plays a role in allowing white men to justify taking violent actions.  A 2013 study at the University of Washington found a notable correlation between feelings of entitlement and homicidal revenge against particular groups, including women or black individuals.  Those statistics play out on both ends: according to the Huffington Post’s analysis, approximately 64% of mass shooting victims are women and children.  Add this to other statistics about gender-based and intimate partner violence, and one starts to see a broad pattern of violence, intimidation, and coercion by those who are currently privileged within our society against those who are not.

When American politicians argue that we cannot let in Syrian refugees because a few among them might be terrorists, they fundamentally miss the point: acts of terror take place in the US more often than we would like to admit. It would be absurd if I said that all white Christian men in the US were terrorists-~-it wouldn’t make any sense-~-but that’s the same rhetoric we use when discussing terrorism and Islam.  But on top of that, when we talk about terrorism solely in terms of the acts of a few groups based overseas, we delegitimize the experiences of those targeted by white, domestic terrorism in the United States.  Fear is still very much a tactic used by those who currently hold particular positions of power and privilege in America to keep other groups in line, to prevent them from feeling safe or from reaching for further rights or opportunities, and this violence needs to be addressed.  It’s past time that we take this violence seriously, and certainly past time that we admitted that terrorists who look like us are still terrorists, no matter how uncomfortable that truth may be.



~ by Randi Saunders on November 25, 2015.

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