Terrorism: A Useful Word, Even in its Absence…

Posted on July 23, 2011


The profile of the attacks in Norway are still emerging. As information about the alleged attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, has trickled in, it becomes clearer that his attack was politically motivated, and ideologically rooted in the kind of teachings of American bigoted luminaries like Daniel Pipes; on a political interpretation of Christian faith; and a highly charged political issue, immigration in Europe. The attack was well-planned by any metric—creating a fertilizer bomb is not something you wake up and do one morning on the fly. And he obviously had a target picked out—an island—which required at least some level of planning to reach. Breivik had political motives and by any traditional definition of the word, was a terrorist—a person with a political motive, using violence to attack a political target—the “summer” camp, was a political party event—to induce terror for political ends. [of course, right after I wrote this, the brilliant folks at EI wrote this staggering piece, based on Breivik’s 1500 page manifesto, which shows that he not only planned the attacks years in advance, his agricultural business was a front for purchasing fertilizer, and he previously tested a bomb ].

That’s something different from the way terrorism has come to be used in the modern day. It’s a handy ideologically loaded term, designed to invalidate threats to the state, large or small, violent or non. Israel was probably at the vanguard of this utility movement, using a semiotic chain that links Jewish state existential threat; to former PLO terror; with Palestinian rock-chucking and non-violent Palestinian actions and diplomatic overtures.

The US was a fast learner, realizing that the terrorist meme could be used to deligitimate all sorts of valid resistance to its policies throughout the world. And US domestic law enforcement agencies have enjoyed a great deal of success in answering the American public’s terror-paranoia—a product of the US’s own success in monopolizing the term—turning ordinary, run of the mill criminals with Muslim names into terrorists by supplying them with Clancyian hair-brained schemes and “terror-trope” weapons like bombs and grenades.  When that hasn’t sufficed, the FBI has “infiltrated” American dissident and activist groups, finding any link to the aforementioned terror-smeared peoples, so that they can snap them together as coordinates on the ideological map.

Let’s be fair, though, to some of those that assumed the act would lead back to a self-proclaimed Islamic terror group. There was at least one legitimate reason to suspect that the attack might be from a group that identifies itself as Islamic; Ansar al Islam claimed credit for the attack early on, and a leader of the group being held in Norway , vowing some kind of retribution for his capture, was just in the news a week earlier. That fact would have been the basis of a fair-minded analysis and speculation. But, of course, the al Qaeda delicacy was just too tempting, and media gorged itself: the NYT and Washington Post, our papers of record, showed the least amount of restraint, as Glenn Greenwald, among others, documents. Maybe they were trying to pick up some of the business floating out there after Murdoch’s spectacular fall last week.

Again to be fair, there have been media outlets that quite quickly and appropriately labeled the act “domestic terror” and likened it to Oklahoma City Bombing, once Breivik appeared as a likely suspect. But in general, most media accounts seemed unable to use the term in any way but the most ideologically loaded. When the substrate for that ideological association dissolved, mainstream media seemed to be visibly, in real-time, frantically grasping for a way to define the event.

This isn’t the case when there are familiar ideological markers in place. When Jonathan von Brunn, the now forgotten American terrorist, attacked the Holocaust Museum two years ago, media seemed to bend over backwards to refer to him as anything but a terrorist—though his act fit the definition, just as the Norwegian attacker’s did.

One incredible example of this dynamic occurred on Hardball in a discussion between Chris Matthews and Representative Mike Rogers, who happened to be on the show [on another topic] when the attack was first reported in 2009. Rogers drew a distinction between the African American Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who had visited a similar act of terror on a military recruiting office,  and Nordic-American Von Brunn:

The Muslim, converted Muslim, who was radicalized in prison who attacked and killed our US soldiers was ideologically driven…I’m not sure I would put that, without knowing all the facts, […] put that in the same category. He was passionately, ideologically driven based on his conversion to radical Islam if you will. And the other instances are people who believe that their political beliefs aren’t being listened to or acted upon by the establishment, and all of the other pressures in your life and if you do some of the profiling again of these folks, you’ll find they had financial stresses, other stresses and they’ve reached that boiling point and whatever it is it could be a mental illness and in many cases it might not be, they might be as rational as you and I, but their philosophical belief that is detached from reality, allows them to act out in a violent way. [Hardball, MSNBC, June 10, 2009].

Matthews christened Rogers opinion as “expert”, because he had some military background, revealing what a serious insult that term now represents to so-called ‘terror analysts. Rogers opinion was, instead, soaked in the tea party rhetoric of white grievance, where anyone packing heat in public was labeled a character of Batman-level pathos, aiming to selflessly bring down the Islamo-Socialist regime of the President who had just ruined America; Rogers’ definition of terrorism seemed an obvious ploy to curry favor with that group. This strategy was even more repellant and obvious when Joseph Stack also wrote a substantial manifesto filled with political motivations before flying his private plane into a local IRS building in 2010. Debbie Medina, a Texas gubernatorial candidate said that the act:

…reflects “the hopelessness many in our society feel….there is a sense in all of our country that we are not on the right path…I grieve for him [Stack].

Such bold defense was matched by an equal reluctance of mainstream media to use the T-Word to describe Stack or his actions. Papers and broadcasters of record pulled out their thesauruses: for MSNBC he was the “plane-crash pilot”; ABC won the Guy Debord prize by calling the act a “spectacle murder”.  Many others simply called him a “tax protester”.

All of these examples, however, hide the reality of just what an empty vessel the term ‘terrorist’ has become. So decanted of meaning is this term, that I think even some of the critique of it may fall prey to axiomatic analysis based on a false notion that there’s some valid normative use of it. One meme, echoed through out the twitter-blog-media industrial complex by Reza Aslan and many others, claimed that the attacker was demoted from terrorist to “madman” when it became clear he was a Norwegian Christian. I’ve found that the “madman” comment came from one source within the Norwegian investigation, and was simply telephoned from article, to article or reprinted via AP wire service, as journalists sought to present something about the event with very little information in the hours between the identification of the attacker and the release of online manifestos and social media data.

That twitter-sphere analysis was a typical response to what is actually a mercurial phenomenon at the the heart of the confusion—the assignation of political awareness and/or motivation to public violence. It’s not just that terrorists are downgraded to madmen when the attacker is found to be white. Non-white attackers are also downgraded from terrorist to madman, or thug, as the occasion warrants. A white person going on a murder spree is an unbalanced lone extremist when the political discourse needs him to be; a Black, Muslim and/or Arab person is a terrorist when committing virtually identical acts. Or, when the tables are turned, and it’s not convenient to attach political aims to such acts, it is again the act of a madman. Simply reading the headlines of these particular terror/un-terror cases is instructive: When an African American goes on a murder spree at a federal building as a political protest for what he claims is [a well defined] economic apartheid for African Americans, the media pause only briefly. When similar acts happen but the African American is a Muslim and the federal target is the military, it is terror again, such as in the case of Muhammad. When an Arab-American military officer undertakes the mundanely evil, but very American, psychotic workplace shooting spree at Ft. Hood, it is terrorism, not ‘going postal’. When a young white man undertakes an act of violence against liberal political targets, it is psychotic shooting spree or “vitriol-induced”, not terrorism.

These uses of the term terror—and its absence—become easier to predict when we realize the spectrum of political value that the word has for defining “useful” violence. Factions of the government and their establishment loudspeakers want the act to be political when the actor represents, or can be made to represent, a political enemy. They don’t want that political association to resonate when the act seems based on quotidian, but very real, social injustices against marginalized groups, or when the perpetrator holds values or beliefs shared by a power interest.

Labeling Norway’s experience as terror would have had value if the actor had been Muslim. It will probably be of no benefit one way or another to the American mainstream discourse now that its not, though our country’s Islamophobe right wing may yet decide to make use of it.