Every Terrorist is Someone Else’s Freedom Fighter
And Other Things We Can’t Clearly See Because Our Government is Built to Make Us Afraid
There’s a problem with current calls by Democrats, the left, and seemingly rational people all around the world to label the mass shootings and other acts of violence perpetrated seemingly weekly by white supremacist men as terrorism — and that is the malleability of the idea of terrorism itself.
The very first Terroristes of the French Revolution were themselves only the most zealous of the revolutionaries, those who believed the revolution wasn’t complete until the aristocracy was headless. They weren’t some isolated loners out of touch with any human community — they were the tip of the spear of their faction, they were proof of its power and presence. Once a movement could terrorize its opposition, it was legitimized, and even on its way to dominance.
Labeling mass shooters as terrorists is as shortsighted, just as it was to label Al-Qaeda and the attackers of September 11 as terrorists. “It’s terrorism” was and is a rhetorical frame that attempts to put these people, driven to the most desperate acts of inhuman violence, outside of any human politics. But Al-Qaeda, and ISIS after it, were fighting for something. So are the gunmen wielding assault rifles against civilian populations here in America. They are the army of a nationless politics, whether they’re leaving behind Trump-emulating manifestos or simply going on killing sprees without a public utterance. Labeling them as terrorists doesn’t put a stop to it, it doesn’t help us understand it and root it out, it doesn’t save lives. If anything, it may be an excuse to let its ideology hang around forever.
“Terrorism” is a word game with ourselves, concealing a deeper ideological purpose — to ensure that Fear is the driving force of our social development. If there are terrorists in our midst — the logic goes — then we must build structures that will protect us from them , and them specifically not their movement, their purpose, or their belief. It’s permission to fear. This made sense when it was Republicans and rightists tacking the label on to every brown-skinned human with any connection to the Islamic diaspora in 2001–2002, because public Fear is a necessity to hold power from the Right. Economic fear and social and racial fear drive Republican platforms, protections against which are the promise of the strong, strict, patriarchal model of government that is the appeal of rightwing politics.
As Naomi Klein enumerated so clearly in The Shock Doctrine, large catastrophes and major social shocks are the best time to introduce sweeping political agendas, and so in the wake of September 11 the rhetorical game around Fear was deepened even further America, and George W. Bush was allowed to create a new Cabinet department — the Department of Homeland Security — while of course easing the disastrous PATRIOT Act through the Republican-controlled Congress.
It’s always disturbed me that there was such silence from critics around the horrifying phrase ‘Homeland Security.’ Perhaps it’s forgotten in the short memory of American political discourse, but this was a brand new phrase in the United States that many of us had never heard used in anything other than an Orwellian sense before. ‘Homeland’ had always been the sinister terminology of the Soviets, and it had seemed a point of pride in the United States that we didn’t go in for such obviously Orwellian constructs, ones that were such clear projections of racial and political hegemony. Calling the United States anyone’s ‘homeland’ would have made you sound like an authoritarian lunatic. It’s just such bad, unsubtle, Bond-villain rhetoric. And then all of a sudden it was a Cabinet department, and the largest reorganization of the Federal Government since the end of World War II.
The Dept of Homeland Security is an institutionalization of American Fear. Every one of its agencies is meant to address something that’s supposed to terrify us. And by us, I mean White America. How else can we rationalize a department that addresses both immigrants and infectious diseases? Computer viruses, drug runners, and hurricanes? There are 22 agencies rolled together into this distillation of White Fright.
Besides the jarring presence of immigrants in among the computer viruses, biological warfare, and nuclear weapons, it’s also notable how things ‘other’ folks might fear are nowhere to be seen. Lack of Education, Poverty, Indignity, Civil Rights, or essential basic Health and Wellness are not considered structurally essential to the ‘security’ of our ‘homeland.’ Instead it’s immigrants, viruses, natural distasters, and the evaporation of ‘law and order.’ It’s disaster-movie logic, an intensely white, male lens on danger that’s been drilled deep into the American psyche.
It’s a dangerously shortsighted idea that Trumpism alone is fanning these white nationalist flames surrounding us today. He’s inherited a government that’s already built on White Fear, and that insists with the sledgehammer of its very name that this is a white ‘homeland.’ It’s ‘homeland security’/ disaster movie logic to believe that labeling mass shooters as ‘terrorists’ is a step toward rooting out white supremacist, gun-fueled violence. It’s much, much harder than that.
Our work is to transform our society into one that first and foremost isn’t structured as a Fear response. (And this isn’t a plea for more ‘empathy,’ or to trot out lame alternate excuses for violence that direct that fear elsewhere, like toward the mentally ill or the ‘lone wolf’ or the unsexed adolescent boy — all of those lines of reasoning are just asking the same question, what is it I’m supposed to really be afraid of?)
It’s disturbing then that some Democrats are falling for it when responding to mass murder — that If we can call these shooters terrorists that that might somehow direct our social resources to appropriately address them. Labeling shooters ‘terrorists’ is only the strategy of naming a new Fear. It doesn’t consider the deeper question, that the very social resources we have are built to encourage these particular ideologies. The concept of ‘Homeland Security’ is not a perverse Orwellian neologism to this generation of shooters — it’s a part of the social fabric, an assumed piece of America’s very infrastructure.
Naming terrorism as such becomes fuel for an endless, unwinnable war (as we’ve seen clearly in Iraq and Afghanistan). Endless, nationless war is a very convenient reason-for-being at the Dept of Homeland Security. Terrorism isn’t endable, and so neither can ‘Homeland Security’ ever be achieved. We must critically examine the very concept that we are subject to constant threat. Are we really in a perpetual existential crisis? Is someone really always out to get us? Do we really need a Cabinet-level department, rich with taxpayer funds, to play whack-a-mole with our Fears?
What we must do instead is find out to whose army these shooters belong. Whose freedom fighters are these? And what does that freedom mean to them? And we must figure out how to respond as a civilization that wants to live free from fear. As long as we call them terrorists, they will be irrational, ungraspable monsters in our collective closet. We really need to open that closet and throw the lights on. We’ll see they’re not solitary monsters sprinkled amongst us; they’re an army belonging to some borderless conceptual Homeland, and in expressing rage at the things they fear, they’re pursuing the agenda of that nation’s citizens.