Is the Definition of Terrorism Racist?
We all know what fear is these days.
On Tuesday, May 22nd, twenty-two year old Salman Abedi brought a bomb to an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, United Kingdom. According to The Telegraph, this act resulted in “the worst terrorist attack in the UK since the deaths of 56 people in the 7/7 London bombings of 2005.” Twenty-two people lost their lives, including one eight-year-old girl. Dozens of others were injured.
Nishka Dhawan, twenty years old, an international student at New York University London – and an Ariana Grande fan – told DailyClout:
“I could barely believe what happened when I read the news that morning. I was almost going to stay in London longer to go to that concert. This could have been me, this could have been any of us.”
The attacker, according to the Telegraph report, detonated a homemade explosive device packed with nuts and bolts at about 10:30 pm near the entrance of the arena, shortly after singer Ariana Grande had finished her performance. The assailant was killed by his own bomb during the attack, but officials do not yet know whether or not this attack was a suicide bombing. In response to the turmoil, British Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered 5,000 soldiers to be deployed on the streets in order, she says, to protect the public.
Everyone has agreed that this must be a “terrorist” act. But is it? It is a violent, murderous act; but, according to UK law, it is not necessarily an act of “terrorism”; we don’t yet know enough to be sure that it is.
“‘terrorism’ means the use or threat of action where […] the use or threat is designed to influence the government [or an international governmental organization] or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, [racial] or ideological cause.”
So an act that elicits the emotion of terror, and even acts of violence, are in themselves not enough to constitute “terrorism” in Britain, legally.
Few actually understand how “terrorism” is legally defined or prosecuted.
In the United States, the definition of terrorism is very explicit and narrow – which raises important questions.
People in the US popularly understand “terrorism” to mean a form of “communicative violence”. Since it seems as if a “terror threat” is always imminent, people in America usually feel unable to take any specific actions in order to protect themselves. From the perspective of violent groups, “terrorism” is theater; it is a show which the terrorist group stages. The goal of “terrorism” from this vantage point is to cause not harm primarily, but rather to instill fear.
But in fact, legally, “terrorism” is much more specifically defined. Many fields define “terrorism” differently but it’s helpful to pinpoint the United States legal definition – as that is the only one with criminal penalties.
As The Atlantic pointed out in 2010,
“The ‘Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’ of 1996 spelled out a very clear definition of what acts and crimes fall under the ‘Federal Definition of Terrorism’ (a definition modified somewhat by the U.S.A Patriot Act). Section 2332 of U.S. Code 18C113B states that terrorism is an act that ‘is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct,’ and is also a violation of any number of prohibited acts, including: ‘killing or attempted killing during an attack on a Federal facility with a dangerous weapon,’ and ‘killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the United States.'”
So this means that Muslim extremists, for instance, are much more likely to be prosecuted in the US than are white supremacist extremists, as prosecutors can much more easily claim that Muslim extremists are motivated by anti-US government emotions. Meanwhile, many violent white supremacists are often not prosecuted as “terrorists,” even though, according to The Washington Times, “the majority of fatal attacks on US soil are carried out by white supremacists, not terrorists.” Even that sentence is problematic, and, I would say, embeds racism: this sentence reveals the serious legal double standard in which violent white supremacists are not “terrorists” in America.
Independent news source Mother Jones describes another example of this double standard:
“after six people were killed and many others were injured while praying at a mosque in Quebec City on January 29, the White House and Fox News quickly ran with false claims that the suspected attacker was Moroccan. (That man was in fact interviewed as a witness.) Trump has not tweeted nor made any public remarks about the white nationalist (and Trump fan) who has been charged in the case”.
Another similar case of a white man who was not called a “terrorist” involved a man, Robert Lewis Dear, going on a deadly rampage in 2015 at a Planned Parenthood clinic, as reported in Politico. He was “apparently motivated by an infamous video sting that falsely claimed Planned Parenthood was trafficking in ‘baby parts’,” according to Mother Jones. Mr. Trump simply called this man a “maniac” on NBC — but there was no further follow-up from Mr. Trump; he then promptly dismissed the case, and went on at much greater length about what he thinks is wrong with Planned Parenthood:
“I will tell you there is a tremendous group of people that think it’s terrible, all of the videos that they’ve seen with some of these people from Planned Parenthood, talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car […].”
In addition to this past silence, Mr. Trump never mentioned a word in regards to shootings targeted at Black Lives Matter protesters. For example, in Minneapolis in 2015, a man with racist views, Allen L. Scarsella, used eight shots to shoot five protesters. Scarsella identified with the anti-government “sovereign citizens” movement, reported The New York Times. The “sovereign citizens” movement is rooted in racism and in anti-Semitism, and is based upon the belief that the citizens themselves – “not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore”, as the Southern Poverty Law Center explains. An example for the group’s racist justifications is that they “often distinguish between so-called ’14th Amendment citizens,’ who are subject to federal and state governments, and themselves, who are also known as ‘organic citizens’ — an ideology that causes adherents to claim that black people, who only became legal citizens when the 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War, have far fewer rights than whites”.
The New York Times stated too that the perpetrator was “charged […] with five counts of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon causing substantial bodily harm, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000”. He was not charged with terrorism.
Are we actually convicting “terrorists”? Yes, we are. According to the Department of Justice Fact Sheet on Prosecuting and Detaining Terror Suspects in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, “since Jan. 1, 2009, more than 30 individuals charged with terrorism violations have been successfully prosecuted and/or sentenced in federal courts nationwide”. There are approximately 139 domestic terrorist suspects currently in Federal Bureau of Prison custody. So yes, prosecutors are using “terrorism” for convictions; but white violent offenders who mass-murder people of color, are not generally included in this category of offender.
So not only is the legal definition of “terrorism” creating a double standard for convictions; but the “terror threat” may be based on a hyped reality.
Is terrorism indeed the greatest threat we, as a world, are currently facing?
Statistically, no. In an interview with BBC on July 24, 2015, then-President Barack Obama pointed out that “since 9/11 fewer than 100 Americans had died in terror attacks […] but tens of thousands had perished through gun crime”. More experts agree that terrorism is not, numerically, our greatest problem: on January 25, 2016, the New York Times quoted Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, who affirmed that “an American residing in the United States [is] around five thousand times more likely to be killed by a fellow citizen armed with a gun than by a terrorist inspired by the ideology of Osama bin Laden”.
Yet these US gun violence attacks, while they do create high death tolls, are not considered legally to be acts of terrorism.
American legal decision-making by prosecutors may be part of this racist outcome of white extremists not convicted where brown people are. We have to re-evaluate whom our enemies are, if we wish to have more equitable prosecutions. There is a double standard, and until we fix this, terrorism will continue to be poorly defined, inequitably charged, and thus, a difficult force to fight.