The Language of Terrorism
[Tom Tomorrow, May 6, 2013]
Among the many victims of our War on Terror, now in its second decade, is the word “terror” itself. Terror has come to refer to what Muslims do to non-Muslims, or to Christians, or to Americans. With bombs. A white supremacist kills six Sikhs in Wisconsin with a gun? He’s crazy. An anti-abortion fanatic kills a doctor while the doctor is attending church? He’s a man of conscience. But if a Muslim shoots people, or more likely, explodes a bomb, then he’s a terrorist. Bomb + Mulsim = terror; gun + Christian = freedom. I know, I’m simplifying. But it’s how these events get covered, and how too many politicians speak of them.
Which brings me to Hamilton Nolan’s article Terrorism and the Public Imagination today at Gawker. (Hat tip: Glenn Greenwald.) It’s worth checking out. I’ll quote from it below.
In America, all villainy is not created equal.
A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media’s attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten.
Besides countless deaths abroad and a staggering debt at home, the primary legacy of America’s “War on Terror” is our profoundly warped sense of the dangers of the world we live in, and of who our “enemies” are. As a rule, the rare violence committed by Muslims, with some political or religious motivation, is “terrorism,” and deserving of the attention of the public and of our stern-faced leaders. The far more common and destructive acts of violence committed every single day on the streets of America due to poverty and the drug war and lack of education and simple human viciousness are “street violence,” which is treated as some timeless aspect of the human condition. This violence, which kills many more Americans each year than any Muslim terrorist could dream of, is unworthy of our brain space.
This modern age of Terror That Matters vs. forgettable violence is not simply a matter of ratings. It is a direct outgrowth of a deliberate post-9/11 political strategy to create a world in which the vague specter of “Terrorism” could fill the role of The Big Bad “Other” that had been empty since the end of the Cold War. That strategy was wildly successful. It helped to cow the nation’s news media enough to pave the way for the war in Iraq. It made patriotism synonymous with suspicion. And it persists today, in our reflexes that cause us to instinctively and unquestioningly expect an act of violence inspired by Muslim zealotry to mean something more than an act of violence inspired by any other cause.