I’m a brown person, so any time the word “terrorism” makes the rounds, I perk up. In the wake of the Charleston Massacre I’ve seen a certain hashtag, #Whiteterrorism, make its way around progressive corners of the web. Yet I have to wonder: do those who use this term understand the full weight of what it means to be called a terrorist? What do Muslim Americans have to say about calling others by that epithet? Terrorism, from our recent history, is tarnished by its racial connotations. It is, at best, slander used to tell us that we don’t belong. At worst, it is the banner under which the United States Government has terrorized our people with impunity.
I recently read a great article by David Simon on his blog, putting the aftermath of the Baltimore Uprisings in context. I liked many of his insights into the pragmatics of achieving institutional reform through the US’s two-party political rivalry. But his critique that rioting is bereft of any political potential left something to be desired.
I write about this because even though Simon trotted out “Selma, Gdansk, Robben Island,” it was a sophisticated formulation of an oftentimes hackneyed argument. Most of the time, it seems that people use the nonviolence incantation as a way to lazily dismiss contemporary attempts at agitation for change, or to hold people to an impossibly high standard. But Simon, perhaps as a credit to his extensive experience with the press, understood it in terms of the battle of images.
In his own words,
“When the very demand is an end to wanton and brutalizing overpolicing, a riot and all the imagery that a riot conjures is in fact the most useless thing in the great arsenal of civil disobedience and rebellion…
This makes me wonder. Is David Simon right to place the crux of reform on wooing the middle class? And what about “Selma, Gdansk, Robben Island?” Does history actually line up behind his examples?
Monday this week marked the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attack on Littleton, Colorado at Columbine High School. I watched Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine that day, purely by coincidence. There were a couple of things that struck me about the film. One of them was the way in which people talked about the attack, the way in which the "how could this have happened to us?" became a narrative about good, innocent people just trying to live decently in a world that can be gripped by a nigh inexplicable violence. Michael Moore's project was to explain that seemingly incomprehensible violence through a fear-driven culture. But there was one place Michael Moore, fashioning himself as a "man of the people", could not have gone. How is it that in a land where everyone is "good people," bad things continue to happen? Could it really be possible that we are all good people?
Well, hold on. Not everyone is good people. Somewhere, lurking in our communities, there are the psychopaths and the deviants. They--especially the psychopaths--are so adept at parroting our values back to us that they can live completely undetected in our societies until they decide on their moment to strike. We're the good people, and they, the others, are the evil psychopaths.
If only it were so simple. We all have a capacity for cruelty, and we all have the capacity to empathize with others, even with psychopaths. In the context of studying maximum security prisons, Professor Lorna A. Rhodes interviewed guards about the fear of "contamination" they experience when interacting with inmates labelled as psychopaths. There is an assumed predictability to psychopathic behavior because it is characterized as ruthlessly rational. But if it is so easy for us to inhabit the mind of a psychopath, and if contamination is such a threat to the extent that the line between psychopath and investigator can be made indistinguishable, then is there really such a stable boundary between the good "us" and the evil "them"?