The Politics of Labeling “Terrorism” in the United States

September 17, 2015
The Politics of Labeling “Terrorism” in the United States
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

In July 2015, Mohammod Abdulazeez opened fire on two military facilities in the southern American city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, fatally wounding five U.S. navy service members. After reporters rushed to tie the shooting to “terrorism,” some sensed a double standard in how violent attacks in the United States are characterized. As critics saw it, because the attack was committed by a Muslim-American, the first impulse was to deem the shooting a potential act of terrorism, whereas had it been a white American perpetrator it more likely would have been seen as just another of the country’s mass shootings.

The reflexive resort to the term terrorism to describe Abdulazeez’s attack was also striking, given how observers labeled a mass shooting that occurred just four weeks earlier in another southern city, Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof, a young man of Caucasian origin, had opened fire in Emanuel AME Church, killing nine parishioners gathered for religious study. Despite the political overtones of Roof’s self-professed aim to ignite a race war between black and white Americans, the attack was widely referred to as a horrific tragedy, and a racist atrocity—not as terrorism. Compare the headlines following each shooting in the respected Christian Science Monitor: “Charleston mass shooting: Reminder of past racist attacks on black churches” versus “Does the Chattanooga shooter fit the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist pattern?” and “Chattanooga shooting: How ways to catch a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist failed.” As these headlines suggest, the way that acts are labeled may depend less on the character of the attack, than on who is committing it.

Indeed, there is a pervasive bias in how domestic terrorist acts are characterized in the United States. The bias manifests in a particular pattern. On the one hand, there is a tendency in the press and in public discourse both to publicize and label violent attacks committed by Muslims acts of “terrorism.” On the other, attacks by other segments of the society, notably extremists from the far-right of American politics, are less likely to be referred to as “terrorism,” and are more likely to seen as the solitary acts of disturbed individuals. This pattern both inflates the “threat” posed by Muslims and obscures that posed by other groups.

The reality is that terrorism originating from Muslim-Americans is not a significant threat, especially in context of the challenges posed by gun violence overall, and relative to the violent acts perpetrated by other segments of American society. Many in the United States, however, have little appreciation for these facts. Ask most Americans, as I commonly query my own university students, how many lethal attacks perpetrated by Muslim-Americans have occurred in the United States since 2001, and they often appear puzzled. Given the frequent references to militant jihadists and aggressive reporting of anything that smacks of terrorism, their intuition leads them to expect that the number should be high. Yet, they are stumped because they can rarely think of any attacks, with the possible exception of the horrific bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers of the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Most are surprised to learn that the reason they are stumped is because there have been in reality just a handful of lethal attacks committed by Muslims in the fourteen years since Sept 2001. This includes the 2009 shooting by US army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hassan, at Fort Hood that killed 13 (which has been controversially referred to by Army officials as work place violence, not as terrorism). It also includes a second, lesser known shooting in 2009 by a Muslim convert at a military recruiting center in Arkansas that killed one soldier, as well as the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, in which five died and hundreds were wounded.

As detailed in the annual reports issued by the sociologist Charles Kurzman, in those 14 years there also have been on average 10-20 arrests of American Muslims on terrorism-related offenses. These include charges related to providing material support to overseas groups, including giving money or other resources, and seeking training or joining foreign terrorist groups. This average excludes a spike in 2009 driven in part by a number of Somalis in Minnesota accused of providing assistance and seeking to join the militant movement al-Shabab.

Among those “plots” that some would consider more serious, such as foiled plans to bomb public spaces or government facilities, many do not hold up under scrutiny as truly threatening. Informants and undercover law enforcement officers regularly provide resources, expertise (including weapons), and comradeship in “sting” operations involving individuals who otherwise might never have attempted to translate their extremist views into actionable plans. Two more sobering plots, Faisal Shahzad’s 2010 attempt to bomb New York City’s Times Square and Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plans to bomb the New York subway failed because the perpetrators made serious operational errors, leading to their apprehension. In short, while there have been a small number of individuals intending to engage in mayhem and murder, and a few sadly have succeeded, arguing that “Muslim Homegrown Terrorism” constitutes a significant threat overstates the terrorism challenge posed by this segment of American society.

If the threat posed by Muslim-American terrorists has often been overstated, the inverse has occurred with the terrorist challenge posed by other sectors of American society, especially by the violent off-shoots of the far-right. A 2013 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, details the activities of three components of the violent far-right in the United States: anti-federalist/anti-government extremists, racist/white supremacists, and a religious fundamentalist element focused on Christian Identity theology. It identifies a steady increase in the number of attacks initiated by far right groups and individuals, with a 100 percent increase from 2006 to 2007 resulting in a surge of attacks, from approximately 225 to 450. The numbers remain high with approximately 350 attacks by these groups and individuals documented in 2011.

A separate 2015 report by the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. found that since 2001 twice the number of Americans have been killed by far right extremists as by Muslim radicals; that number holds up even when it includes attacks, in addition to those listed above, which are more questionably tied to “jihadist” violence. Many of these attacks by far-right actors are serious and disturbing. Among them is the murder of six Sikhs by a neo-Nazi terrorist who opened fire in a temple in August 2012 in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Indeed, that the threat posed by far-right terrorists is more serious than that posed by militant jihadists is no surprise to American law enforcement. A 2014 survey conducted by two North Carolina based scholars of 400 law enforcement agencies, found that officials ranked the threat from anti-government and other extremists more highly than that originating from Muslim extremists. Among the serious offenders from the far-right are “Sovereign Citizens,” who in their refusal to submit to government authority, have repeatedly murdered police officers.

Even when the threat posed by this segment of society is taken seriously, it is often reported in a manner that obscures its ideological and political foundations. Attacks by these Americans may be seen as isolated acts that are committed by disgruntled men, devoid of political content or consequence. This is not a flattering portrait, but it is consequential because it implies these individuals are acting in desperation, not out of intent to engage in premediated murder to further a political agenda. Consider how Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described Roof, “He was one of those whacked out kids. . . .It’s about a young man who is obviously twisted.”

Alternatively, violence committed by white males is regularly attributed to some form of psychiatric instability or mental illness. To be sure, one should not neglect evidence that an individual is mentally ill when assessing the motivation for their actions. But some have detected a pattern in which mass killings by white males are apt to be excused, attributed to potential personality disorders, or other psychiatric afflictions, even in cases where there is little medical evidence to support such a conclusion. Historically, in contrast, violence perpetrated by non-white sectors of society, such as Black Americans, has often been seen as menacing, the result of calculated political acts—a sign of a serious threat to society. The same pattern may hold true for Muslim-Americans in the present.

So, what is going on? What is the source of this bias in the characterization of the domestic terrorism threat in the United States?

Several phenomena converge to perpetuate the bias. Most important is the long shadow of the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers and how that has shaped perceptions of the threat posed by Islamic extremists in American society. It is difficult to appreciate how profoundly those attacks affected Americans, leading to a willingness to abide violations of a deeply held commitment to civil liberties, and in 2003 to accept relatively passively the justifications for the country’s ill-conceived war against Iraq.

Those perceptions, moreover, continue to be reinforced by the many years of U.S. war in the Middle East, in which terror attacks by religious extremists and “jihadists” have been a major feature. Americans are also regularly presented with reports that Al Qaeda, and now ISIS, are trying to inspire their fellow citizens to attack them at home. While this may reflect these organizations’ aims and distorted ideologies, reporting about it likely reinforces the conscious and unconscious association of Muslims with acts of terrorism in the United States. In fact, sowing division of this kind may serve the purposes of these groups, even if it does not provoke violent attacks.

The complexities of American politics, in which some conservative factions resist attempts to call attention to militants in their midst, adds to the distortion. These politics render it difficult to provide a balanced view of the domestic terrorism challenges in the United States. Those who have reported or discussed far-right violence, for example, have faced outrage from some think that by singling out these extremists, analysts are engaging in a smear campaign of everyone on the conservative right. When in 2009, for example, the Department of Homeland Security authored a report detailing concerns that some military personnel could fall prey to recruitment by extremists it sparked outrage among veterans groups.  Then DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano , subsequently apologized and posted a clarification of the report’s intent on the DHS website.

Similarly, the aforementioned report in 2013 by the Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, which was titled, “Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right” faced a virulent backlash. Critics accused the CTC of succumbing to the whims of the liberal left in allowing for the possibility that this sector of society could constitute a serious threat. The size and influence of this reactionary faction in American politics should not be overstated, but it is a vocal minority that complicates political leaders’ efforts to speak openly about far-right terrorism and insidiously influences reporting on terrorism.

U.S. law is also not especially helpful in curbing these distortions because it results in many white domestic terrorists not actually being charged with “terrorism.” Because of the particularities of U.S. federal law, it is possible to be charged under terrorism statutes with offenses tied to overseas or foreign terrorist organizations, but not with crimes specifically deemed domestic terrorism. For example, when Roof was charged by prosecutors with hate crimes, and not domestic terrorism, some decried it as an example of blatant prejudice.

Yet they may have failed to appreciate the limitations of federal law. Under U.S. Code Title 18 Chapter 113B Terrorism, there are a number of offenses listed, including use of a weapon of mass description (which includes conventional bombs); providing material assistance to overseas terrorists; seeking training by a foreign terrorist group; and conspiring from outside the country’s borders to kill Americans. It is these specific acts that individuals are charged with—not an offense of “terrorism.” Although the U.S. Code does provide a definition for “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism,” committing acts that are described in the wording of those definitions are not in themselves chargeable offenses. Hence, admitted Boston Marathon bomber, Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, faced federal charges related to his use of explosives, which constitute “weapons of mass destruction.” Although his actions may also have met the definition of “domestic terrorism” as outlined in the U.S. code, there was in fact no corresponding offense with which to charge him, or for that matter, Dylann Roof.

Some may argue the United States should change its law to provide an offense of “domestic terrorism.” Others, however, make the convincing argument that there is too much, rather than too little, covered already in terrorism statutes. Some offenses charged under the material support statute, for example, tread frightfully close to violating the Freedom of Speech protections under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

There is a final societal component to the distortion in characterizing domestic terrorism. It is rooted in a current of intolerance toward immigrants and minority groups, which has been growing in the United States and in many Western countries. This intolerance has affected many groups, but it has been pronounced  in attitudes toward Muslim-Americans. While prejudice likely plays a role in the discriminatory views, the trend also may be the result of Americans knowing little about Islam, and having little exposure to their fellow Muslim citizens, which renders them vulnerable to stereotypes, and in some cases exploitation by those who opportunistically propagate Islamophobia.

Muslims constitute a successful and vibrant sector of American society, and while Muslim communities are growing, they are still small in number, constituting by many counts just one percent of the country’s population, and tend to be geographically concentrated in cities along the country’s coasts and in the Midwest. Many Muslims are immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, or Africa, and therefore may be subject to both anti-immigrant and religious intolerance. In addition, there are an unfortunate few positive representations of Muslims in popular culture, which would provide familiar images of “ordinary” Muslims to whom other Americans might relate. Consequently, while racists like Roof are familiar in the horrifying way that white supremacists have long been familiar to Americans, acts perpetrated by Muslims are seemingly much more foreign, and lend themselves to the exotic labeling of “terrorism.”

Fortunately, there are some signs of positive change in the longstanding distortion in how domestic terrorism is portrayed in the United States. As recently as 2011, the rhetoric  about “Muslim Homegrown” terrorism was disturbingly alarmist in tone, a dynamic fed by the 2009 spike in Muslims arrested on terror offenses noted above. Much less attention was being paid to terrorist violence perpetrated by non-Muslims. The latter issue more recently has been gaining attention.

One illustration of the change is the treatment in the press of the relatively unknown case of an attack by Joseph Stack in 2010. An anti-tax activist, Stack had written a lengthy manifesto decrying the activities of the Internal Revenue Service (the I.R.S. is the federal government tax authority), before he flew a small plane into an IRS  building in Austin, Texas, killing a father of six.  At the time, one had to scour the press to find any debate or even reference to Stack’s attack as terrorism.  The New York Times went so far as to highlight how the initial fears that Stack’s crash was a terrorist attack were allayed when it was discovered it was only an isolated act by a man with a grudge against the IRS. Although more needs to be done to achieve a balanced picture, the fact that the shootings by Roof and Abdulazeez at least sparked debate and controversy over whether they qualified as terrorism is a sign of progress.