Terrorism, refugees, and asymmetrical threat perception

Domestic terrorism is, and should be considered to be, a significant national security threat. Successful acts of terrorism have the potential to directly disrupt food and water supplies, economic and government stability, and the day to day lives of people living in the United States. While incidence of terrorism in the United States is relatively low, it happens, and raising or lowering the threat level is at times prudent, depending on available intelligence information about both domestic and local threats.

What’s more up for debate, however, is the source of that terrorism. The vast majority of domestic terrorism is a result of domestic actors on our own soil, primarily white, conservative men — a few outliers such as radical environmentalists aside. Conservatives, particularly anti-choicers and white supremacists, are the most significant terrorist threat in the United States, illustrated by a history of recent terrorist incidents as well as reasonable threat assessments.

Those living in the US, however, remain firmly convinced that the real danger is foreign actors on US soil, specifically Muslims associated with Daesh and other fundamentalist groups (or, as the media charmingly likes to describe them, ‘Islamists’). Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the popular notion is that brown people are far more dangerous than white, that walking into a public building is more dangerous than, for example, entering an abortion clinic.

Part of the problem here is that many acts of domestic terrorism are not identified as such. Hate crimes like drawing swasticas in human feces on the sides of mosques are written off instead of being recognised as dangerous precursors to violent terrorist acts. Attempted arson and murder at Planned Parenthood facilities is treated as an isolated crime, rather than part of a dangerous social pattern. This makes it harder to educate members of the public in terms of where terrorist threats come from and how to deal with them.

There are several motivations behind the conscious desire to refuse to identify certain acts of domestic terrorism as what they are, but one of them is definitely the desire to perpetuate isolationism in the United States. By making it appear as though most terrorism is committed by foreign actors — like those responsible for the 11 September attacks — the state can justify the surveillance culture surrounding the total abridgment of civil rights for people of colour in the United States, but it can also promote border policy that makes it difficult or impossible for people to enter the country, all in the name of protecting the safety of the American public.

This came up to striking effect in the later months of 2015, with Syrian refugees applying for asylum across the West and being denied, including in the US, despite intense pressure to open the nation’s borders to those in critical need. Opponents argued that radicalised people would find their way into the nation disguised as refugees, justifying their insistence on closing state borders and city limits to those most in need, despite the fact that refugees have to undergo a lengthy and painful screening process before being admitted into the country, let alone allowed to stay. The way we talk about terror props up such attitudes, by making it seem like people who choose to immigrate to the US are doing so with terrorism in mind — because no one, thinks many Americans, who grows up on US soil could commit an act of terrorism.

There’s a deliberate benefit here for those who want to close the border entirely to immigrants, an isolationist tactic that reflects larger problems with US foreign policy. This is a nation with an exceptionalist political legacy, rooted in the firm belief that the United States is special, operating under some sort of divine right, but it’s also a nation with a political legacy of refusing to engage with the rest of the world until the issue can’t be ducked any longer. Thus our delayed entries into both world wars, our reluctance to take action in Rwanda, our blundering in Iraq and Syria. The United States wants to live alone on an island of empire, rather than as part of the global community.

Yet, many people want to come to the US to build lives for themselves, to connect with friends and family, to do business, to participate in global commerce and cultural exchange. The US is highly selective when it comes to allowing people into the country, treating Westerners preferentially and relegating most members of the Global South to the back of the line, putting tight quotas on them without openly admitting that it’s doing so, because courts have ruled quotas illegal. Framing terrorism as an ‘immigrant problem’ is a stealthy way to create and enforce immigration quotas, by making it seem as though the nation is only protecting itself when it bars admission for some immigrants and not others.

This also creates asymmetrical threat perception in the United States. It is white men who walk into churches and shoot innocent parishioners, white men who enter health care facilities with murderous intent, white men who blow up federal buildings. Yet, when surveyed, many people in the US express concerns about people of colour with foreign origins, convinced via a clever balancing act and public messaging campaign that these are the people they should worry about. This is the United States, the nation in which we live, one where gross inequality is neatly covered up by aggressively lopsided policy.

The definition of ‘undesirable’ when it comes to immigrants hasn’t changed, but the tactics used to keep immigrants out — moral and religious panic, threats of terrorism and taking jobs — haven’t.

Image: Syrian Refugee, Bengin Ahmad, Flickr