The Face of Terrorism: What (and Who) Gets Labeled and What Doesn’t

A person walks into a community clinic filled with patients and care providers and opens fire with the specific goal of frightening everyone present and sending a warning sign to other community clinics: You’re next. The person considers it a political act, an act of profound protest, and the act is deeply tied in with religious beliefs, as well, the belief that this person is doing the right thing and may in fact be obligated to do this. Killing the innocents who were there that day wasn’t an accident, because they weren’t innocent. Is this person a terrorist?

A person hates the United States, writes long, angry, passionate screeds about it, explaining to people why they should hate the US too, and exhorting them to take action in some way, to take up arms, to destroy, to set on fire. This person communicates with people who share these ideological beliefs. Eventually, the person gets tired of waiting, builds a bomb, and sends it to a government building. Is this person a terrorist?

A person becomes angry and deeply frustrated by the government, feeling that it is oppressive and abusive, pointing to numerous instances of human rights violations, infringement on religious and personal freedoms. The person rages on the Internet for months, perhaps even building an entire website to express torrents of anger, and eventually flies a small plane into a building, in what the person believes to be an act of rebellion against an oppressive regime. Is this person a terrorist?

A person makes a habit of locating people with different political ideologies and religious beliefs, and stalking them. Harassing phone calls. Intimidating letters. Abusive notes left on cars and in the workplace. Threats. The person hunts down friends and neighbours, too, telling them all that the target is a terrible, horrible person who commits unspeakable acts of evil. One day, the person finally encounters the quarry unprotected, in a dark place, and fires a gun, only to start the process all over again. Is this person a terrorist?

The answers to these questions may seem simple, or not. What is readily apparent is that when it comes to identifying terrorism, explicitly labeling people and acts as terrorism has less to do with the nature of those acts than with who does them, and why. Fundamentally, terrorism is about frightening people. It is about using violence to achieve a political aim, usually annihilation or a radical change. As the very name suggests, terrorism inspires terror and it is meant to; you are meant to live in a state of fear until the demands of the terrorist have been met.

Here in the United States, the infamous act of terrorism, currently, is probably the 11 September attacks, famous for their sheer scale, brutality, and coordination. But people talk about them like they were the only acts of terrorism that have ever occurred on US soil, ignoring very real and clear instances of terrorism committed before 2001 and long after. Why is this?

Is it, perhaps, because these acts of terrorism typically involve white men? Most domestic terrorists in the United States are white. Many are middle class in origins and Christianity is a common thread, sometimes taken to extreme levels in cases like the ‘white power’ movement, which relies heavily on a very warped version of Christianity in an attempt to prove the supremacy of people who happen to have pale skin. You can mock this movement all you want, but it is terrorist in nature and some acts of terrorism are committed by its members, even though these acts are rarely named as such.

Is it, perhaps, because these acts of terrorism surround activities and politics deemed controversial? Abortion providers and medical clinics believed to offer abortions have been targeted by a systematic, escalating, and terrifying campaign of terrorism for over 20 years now. Numbers of abortion providers are falling in response; one example of the ways terrorists win. To be an abortion provider in the United States is to take your life into your hand. Yet, this isn’t called terrorism. It’s not called terrorism when people bomb or attempt to bomb clinics, shoot abortion providers in cold blood, harass patients and care providers including personnel who aren’t even involved with abortions.

The only thing I consistently see being labeled terrorism when it comes to acts performed by white people from the United States is the extreme fringe of the environmental movement. People have no problem seeing what the E.L.F. does as terrorism, for example; evidently, blowing things up and setting things on fire to accomplish a goal is terrorism when you’re doing it on behalf of the earth, but not on behalf of unborn babies.

People act like identifying a person who uses threats and abusive tactics to try and shut down abortion clinics as a terrorist is the worst thing ever. I’ve seen outspoken reproductive rights activists chastened for calling terrorism for what it is, primarily from outside the movement, of course, but also sometimes from within it. Apparently, calling things by their proper names is scary and wrong.

Here’s the thing, in the United States: Terrorism comes with tough penalties and suspension of certain legal rights. If you are labeled a terrorist, you will fall into a legal black hole so deep, you will wonder if you will ever come out. Which means that by deliberately not identifying certain political activities as terrorism while accurately labeling terrorism in other places, we are creating a standard of unequal enforcement for acts of terror committed on US soil. If everyone who blew up a government building got 10 years, period, regardless, this wouldn’t be so important. But because this isn’t the case, because terrorism carries harsher treatment (and legal abuses), we are creating a double standard. Murder someone and call it a political act in the name of the Christian g-d and that’s ok. Set a few cars on fire in the middle of the night and you’re in trouble. Build a bomb while brown, and face a whole new world of hurt.