A shooting occurred in Las Vegas on October 1st, 2017. The news of the shooting spread across social media, the casualties and injured people rose. I woke up the next morning and the number of casualties peaked at 59 dead and some 500 individuals injured.
The same knee-jerk reactions we see each time a shooting occurs were present across social media: What is his race? Is he Muslim? I bet if he’s white he will be taken down alive… We learned that the shooter was a 64-year-old white man named Stephen Paddock, and before the onslaught of immediate gun control debates erupted across media, one reaction rang louder than all others: the use of the word terrorist in relation to the shooter’s whiteness.
I don’t know that we can say with clarity that arguing for the application of the term “terrorist” to certain individuals is actually useful. The conversation is positioned on the equalization of the term’s application, not on the total deconstruction of the term. The late Eqbal Ahmed agitates our use of ‘Terrorism’ as both a word and idea in his 1998 essay Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, stating: “[Terrorism] necessarily evades definition.” He further describes the nature of what gets defined as terrorism, as well as its double standards, by the US. Ahmed writes, “If you are not going to be consistent, you’re not going to define. […] They don’t define terrorism because definitions involve a commitment to analysis, comprehension, and adherence to some norms of consistency.”
To argue that the term “terrorist” can be extrapolated from this context after decades of societal reinforcement is idealistic at best.
The terminology of terrorism has been racialized and has gained a white supremacist coding that many would consider inextricable from its use at this point. The popular (or mainstream) use of the term terrorism is relatively not new, being loosely used first during the French Revolution, several times between 1948 to 1975 gaining mainstream attention to demonize Palestinians, then becoming a mainstay in mainstream discourse during the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. “Terrorism” has been grounded in western epistemology as any threat to the west, to the Amerikan empire, and any group or person whose political violence can be labeled as an enemy of alleged western democracy. Speech about terrorism often becomes about racialization, religion, and otherization than the actual violence that transpired. To argue that the term “terrorist” can be extrapolated from this context after decades of societal reinforcement is idealistic at best.
Those making the argument for calling those like Stephen Paddock, Dylan Roof, and Adam Lanza terrorists are not arguing in bad intention. And to a degree, I agree with their intentions; a political label with huge negative connotations is unequivocally applied unequally to those with brown skin, certain religious backgrounds, who speak certain languages, and whose relation to the empire can be distanced a certain length. To this extent I agree with the analysis, which always seems instant and knee-jerked, that asserts the term terrorist be applied to white men the same way. The functionality of this logic is deeply flawed, however. Which makes me ask the critical questions: What is its usefulness? Why are you requesting people to be marked with this word? And how does it move our discourse further?
The argument is based on the equalization of a racialized term. However, no matter what we decide to label these violent white men and women, mere words will not stop the violence they enact. We’re given our notions of “terrorism” and “terrorist” within a white supremacist, capitalist framework of violence. The term terrorist will always be raced black and brown because it was designed to dominate black and brown people, even when unintentional. So, being able to define a white person as terrorist solves nothing. By placing these white people on the list with others the state deems “terrorists” – lists that include Black nationalist organizations and freedom fighters like Assata Shakur – what system of language and racialization have we really transgressed against? Is the point to prove to white people that white people can be and are often terrorists? And if so, how is this useful?
Arguing the need to expand a racialized, problematic term like terrorist/terrorism to include more people only appears useful if one’s critique is only language-deep. This is a liberal critique that doesn’t address any deep-rooted problems. If we know that terror speech is all constructed to mean, on a metaphysical level, ‘anyone who transgresses against the western empires,’ then its application to domestic terrorists is still an inevitable reinforcement of the empire. If the unspoken default definition of a “terrorist” is “anyone who hates Amerika, ”you are still saying that these white men are only ‘terrorists’ because their violence is “un-Amerikan.”
We’re given our notions of “terrorism” and “terrorist” within a white supremacist, capitalist framework of violence.
These white violences are the bedrock this country was built on. Noam Chomsky states the way to stopping terrorism is “really easy,” the west must simply “stop participating in it.” We must see through the political hypocrisies and double standards on Amerika’s own violence, which include church bombings, trails of tears, race riots, chattel slavery, Wounded Knee, Jim Crow, lynchings before we take to task expanding inclusivity of words we did not define for ourselves. In this sense, the rocket men who’ve bombed countries and sent drones by the thousands to touch down on Black and brown skin are terrorists. And Amerikan. More than Amerikan, they’re often revered Amerikans, credited for leading this nation. In fact, this exposes that violence done for the west which would be doted as terrorism elsewhere receives praise and respect. So instead of calling to include this white violence as terrorism, let’s first tear apart and redefine the entire notion of terrorism as it stands, and ask ourselves how these acts can possibly be “un-Amerikan” when for many of us they’re all this country knows.
We don’t have many options that currently exist to describe these acts outside of the language of racist terror talk. I have seen it proposed before that we should label these acts “white violence,” and I mostly agree with this formulation. Whiteness and the preservation of whiteness is often the underlying social and ideological persuasion at play. I have also heard convincing arguments that including white people’s violence in our notions of terrorism is the only way to begin deconstructing the white supremacist notions of terrorism, to which I have reservations, yet understand. The point is: we must begin to think deeper, fresher, and with more difficulty about our initial inclines towards language and the equivalences we use.
In a 2006 article, theorist Edward Said stated that we are nourishing “immense, unrestrained pseudo patriotic narcissism” with the obsessive focus on loosely defined “terrorism.” He then asks “is there no way to participate in politics beyond the repetition of prefabricated slogans?” and I am reminded of Steve Biko’s statement that Black people have ‘inherited our very political vocabulary’ from the power structures that be, and see this argument for equalization of terrorist/terrorism within the same vein. We are lacking true critical engagement with any power structure by still operating within its confounds, using language we are given by the very people we wish to challenge.
White Amerikans have been committing acts of mass violence for centuries now and if they still don’t understand that as “terrorism”, then they never will. We must deconstruct the entire notion of terrorism. We must ask how “terrorist” is able to be applied to ISIS, Antifa, Al-Qaeda and the Black Panthers equally and all at once. We must inquire how we’ve arrived at Black and brownness as the default “terrorist”. And what is meant by this terminology. This should inform great caution when applying, and requesting the term to be applied. Whether we argue to call white people terrorists or not, my people, Black and Muslim people, will be unjustly called it regardless. Instead of continuing to inadvertently reinforce an oppressive system, we should begin to propose alternative language and terminology that can deconstruct it.