I understand the appeal of #Whiteterrorism. It is a form of “flipping the script”, political speech that turns language against its mainstream social connotations. There have been a spate of somewhat recent articles highlighting how the “real” threat to America comes from white right-wing extremists, that the public has been mislead by fear-mongering to indiscriminately target Muslim peoples. I also understand the literal interpretation: as one article put it, the definition of terrorist is anyone driven to use violence as a means of intimidating a specific group of people, because of race, ideology, religion, philosophy, and so on.
At first glance, this all might seem reasonable. Yet broad definitions like the above obscure how “terrorism” is a concept that subtly invokes notions of legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence. The true irony of calling right-wing extremists “terrorists” under the broad definition is that one could easily find that the Department of Defense, FBI, Office of the President, and so on all qualify as terrorist organizations driven by the impulse to maintain white supremacy at home and evangelize democratic capitalism abroad, no matter the cost. What’s more, I cannot think of a more extremist ideology from recent history than one that makes threats of global thermonuclear annihilation into a central aspect of dealing with foreign powers.
The anti-colonial revolutions of recent decades demonstrated how one man’s terrorist is always another man’s freedom fighter. Seen this way, the very concept of terrorism is statist, unless any government can be included in this indictment. Considering the extensive history of officially sanctioned brutality against minorities in this country, the US Government often looks less like a neutral arbiter over society and more like the biggest gang in town.
But let’s return to Charleston. Let’s take for granted that “terrorist” is a statist term. Let’s also take for granted that when people talk about terrorism, they imply that government, as a legitimate executor of violence, must intervene to stop the terrorists. If we are going to stop white terrorists, how are we going to do it? The sad reality is that the government's capacity to deal with insurgents is completely broken. We know what the government does in the name of stopping terrorism, yet when we use words like “white terrorism”, I worry that we simply brush aside the uncomfortable implications of what it means to be identified as a terrorist in today’s world.
First of all, is it wise to label people terrorists when we know that the anti-terrorism methods used by officials have, until recently, included a variety of odiously useless “enhanced interrogation” methods? Are these techniques we would wish upon anyone? Secondly, whites classified as terrorists will never be treated as inhumanely as their Muslim analogues because the United States government is an incorrigibly white supremacist institution. To lump them all together under the same catch-all elides the very real consequences to innocent people’s lives when racism, fear, and authority intersect.
Yet as much as we must hold government officials responsible for their hypocrisies, we should not let the American public off the hook. Who would have dared to post: “Mr. Tsarnaev, I don’t know what kind of life you’ve lived, but I do know that people are not born with hate. I love you and pray for you”? Who would have dared to suggest that Mohammad Atta suffered from mental illness, and Osama Bin Laden survived a troubled childhood? Psychology for whites and morality for coloreds: this double standard for interpreting mass murder frames the conceptual apartheid undergirding public discourse today.
Of course, #Whiteterrorism addresses the conceptual apartheid by appropriating the statist discourse of counterterrorism. If brown people can be labelled terrorists so easily, then why not apply it to violent, ideologically driven whites? The racial double-standard is a point well taken, but I believe that the liberal netizens who use this hashtag have not adequately parsed out its statist implications. What ground do we lose when we appropriate, rather than invalidate, statist language? And if a few Al Qaeda affiliates can cast shade upon the entire Muslim diaspora, then perhaps we should all take the #Whiteterrorism hashtag very seriously. If brown people the world over are expected to denounce fundamentalist Islamists, then shouldn’t we expect white people to denounce fundamentalist Christians too? All whites can!