Yesterday on Phase Zero, Bill Arkin wrote a post about the Charleston murders and why they shouldn’t be called terrorism. I think he’s wrong. Wrong about making this horrible crime into an argument about semantics. Wrong about disenfranchising the black community yet again by claiming that it isn’t terrorism to intimidate a community of minorities through the specter of ever-present violence. But mostly wrong because I think words are powerful and important (and I know Arkin does as well).
His post was so concerned with philosophical ramifications that while he made a valid point—we should beware the label of terrorism, and its use to justify the expansion of the national security state—he fails to see that, under the agreed-upon conventions of warfare, this act does meet a standard that is usually reserved solely for Muslim suspects. It is true that any time we address a domestic crime in terms of terror, we risk giving even more authority to a government already drunk with law-enforcement-fusion-center power. But that’s not what comes across in Arkin’s post. And that’s unfortunate, because while Twitter is screaming for his head, the South Carolina police force that failed to prevent this crime (note: not the one that caught Dylann Roof through a traffic stop) is just a small piece of the estimated 1.1 million full time state or local law enforcement employees in the U.S.
Arkin could have referenced a post we’d done previously on the domestic terrorist group, the Sovereign Citizen movement. He makes the same important point in that article, that we should be wary of branding any old crime as terrorism because it just gives the federal government an excuse to expand its already enormous reach—which, in the case of “paper terrorism,” is exactly what is happening. But he didn’t. Instead, he wrote:
“I know that he is white. I know the history of attacks on churches. I understand how unfair our society is, how fucked up the debate and the media are, the gaping gulf that exists between black and white, red and blue, left and right. It’s still not terrorism.”
And that’s a part of the problem.
When you say, ”I know” or “I understand,” and then add a “but” when it comes to tragedies like this, your point is already moot, Bill. You can empathize and you can philosophize, but you don’t know, and you don’t understand, what it possibly means to have someone in a position of privilege tell people of color that a marginalized community, which has been continuously and systematically brutalized, is not under attack from terrorists. Just as you would say, “I have 40 years of experience in the national security world” to justify writing about terrorism in all its forms, you must also acknowledge, “I am a white man, and my viewpoint is inherently different than the black community that has been affected,” when writing about divisive racial issues. And make no mistake, this is all about race. When your point is that words are important, all words must be carefully weighed and measured. You can be provocative and court charges of insensitivity, but you can’t credibly do so without acknowledging your own privilege first.
There seems to be this mentality in the world of war reporting that makes it a point of pride to discuss these kinds of events from an emotionless vantage point. I think that’s a mistake. I cried twice yesterday; I’m not ashamed of that. I know there will be commenters that say this is a lazy rebuttal and a bad reason to discount Arkin’s argument. But I’m comfortable repeating the fact that privilege has to be a part of this conversation on every level, even the remarks about national security, because saying it over and over again is the only way I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not black, and I don’t pretend to know more than I do about the struggle the black community has faced in this country. But I am a minority, and part of a minority community that has faced plenty of misplaced accusations about terrorism at that.
Arkin did make this point:
“By calling the Charleston shooter a terrorist, by using and dignifying this buzzword of our day, by being hyperbolic in the news media, we dehumanize the act. And back to terrorism and national security, and the promiscuity of the government in all of its appropriation, we also inadvertently bestow a heinous crime with some outsized political meaning.”
Which, I think, means this:
“Don’t label this as terrorism, because that leads to ceding ground to the people who want to re-organize our civilian law enforcement and military around the mission of fighting terrorism.”
But I think a better argument is this: Fine. Label this as terrorism, because that is what it is. Pick a definition, stick to it, and then hold the federal government accountable for all forms terrorism. Like maybe this kind of terrorism. Don’t let that government, one which has chosen not to adequately address the systemic racism within its own law enforcement community, continue to fund that broken system through federal defense contracts. Limiting the sale of left over Pentagon war paraphernalia is not enough. Allowing politicians like Lindsey Graham to brand one senseless massacre terrorism and another senseless massacre the sad outcome of a poor mentally ill boy is a total fucking copout. One definition, one means of addressing the issue that we live in a country where this kind of horrific act has become the new normal. Where the president has to come on TV for a fourteenth time in his tenure to say, “We grieve with the victims’ families.”
“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:
- Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
- Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
- Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.”
Or the Department of Homeland Security’s definition. Hell, what about the CIA? They’re all different. Hold them accountable, make them pick one definition, together, and then enforce it in a way that doesn’t play favorites based on color and ethnicity.
I don’t write about this because it’s my bailiwick or because I’m trying to convince Arkin that he’s wrong. I write about it because I believe it’s a part of my job. To continue to say what I think and what I feel, even when that might put me at odds with a man I truly regard as a mentor. But it’s important to remember that by engaging in a debate about semantics in the wake of a horrific event like this, you risk doing something that I know Arkin didn’t intend to do: Deprecate the victims as casualties of a random act of unfortunate violence. These men, women, and children weren’t gunned down in a garden-variety crime. They were killed in deliberate, premeditated–political–attempt to sow terror. I think that meets the definition without question.
Susie Jackson, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Rev. Clementa Pinckney.