When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

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Funny how the Charlie Hebdo massacre was portrayed as a “terror attack” whereas last week’s Charleston massacre was not.

Both attacks had a political or ideological motive but the western media (including New Zealand’s) have studiously avoided calling the Charleston shooter a terrorist. Dylann Roof has been presented as a racist, who committed a “hate crime”.

The term “terrorist” seems to be reserved for Muslims, or at least foreigners. Generally attacks by American-born whites are not seen as terrorism. The reluctance of the US government and media to apply the label to the Charleston massacre adds weight to Muslim accusations that the so-called “war on terror” is focused on their community and fosters prejudice against them.

The selective application of the term “terrorism” shows the limitations of its use.  Glenn Greenwald dispels the idea that it is “some sort of objectively discernable, consistently applied designation of a particularly hideous kind of violence. I am keen to have the term recognized for what it is: a completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever.”

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It is not only white American bigots who escape the terrorist label. The Western media avoid applying the term when American forces are responsible for civilian deaths – as in Iraq war or in the drone bombings the US conducts in several countries.

For the American empire its loyal citizens to be described as terrorists would erode the usefulness of a “war on terror” to increase the powers of the state – particularly in the area of surveillance.

So get it right: a white racist or religious bigot with a gun is a “shooter” or a “gunman”, not a “terrorist”.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Well yeah, true Keith. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    During the war the allied airmen bombing Germany were labelled terrorists. Perhaps not in the sense it has come to mean now they were terrorflyers.

    Interestingly the Kansas City bomber was never labelled a terrorist either. I wonder how far back this little pattern goes?

    We’re too used to forming our opinions from facile and manipulative media. An ounce of discernment goes a long way.

    As well as remembering who gets to write history.

    The really poignant part of your blog Keith, is how joyously NZ media apes this kind of shit. So sad.

  2. Terrorism is a deliberate attack on primarily civilian targets to elicit terror amongst the wider population. In that sense the attack on the church in South Carolina could well be described as a terror attack and therefore qualifies. However Drone attacks are not designed to create terror amongst the wider population. They are designed to target specific people only. If the US wished to strike terror in the hearts of people using aerial bombing they wouldn’t use a drone firing a single shot air to ground missile but a fully laden B-52 bomber dropping dozens of bombs or a single large scale FAE bombe that will wipe out an entire town in one go.

    • You mean like they did onto Baghdad – of course, that wasn’t terrorism – that was “shock and awe”.

    • “However Drone attacks are not designed to create terror amongst the wider population”

      Really? Really??

      I wonder if the little kids who live under the passing of these monstrosities know that? Or have we terrorised them into thinking any mechanical thing that flies brings them no good at all?

      As you step out tomorrow pause. Think. Imagine. You don’t live here; you live in a country with damn’ intrusive neighbours and ‘allies’ who think they have some right to play with their toys and target your fellow citizens.

      Would you roll over squeaking ‘Kick me, masters!’ – or would you turn ‘terrorist’ in whatever way was right for you?

      I liked Jon Stewart’s monologue on the topic. I’m glad someone is starting to ruffle the conversation. May it continue and grow.

      ‘A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’. Second Amendment.

      Missing the well regulated militias that most gun-bearing Americans don’t belong to.

    • However Drone attacks are not designed to create terror amongst the wider population.

      Really, Gosman?

      You might feel different in you actually lived in areas where drone attacks took place.

      It’s very easy to be smug when you’re sitting comfortably, thousands of kilometres away, in the safety of your own home.

      As I said below; Perhaps it might be better to look at the underlying causes of why some people take up arms, rather than just slap a convenient label on them, and not bothering to think it through.

      You haven’t thought it through.

  3. You make valid points Keith. Whether you view a person as a terrorist or freedom fighter depends much upon whether you agree with his objectives or not. It can be argued, with some justification, that terrorists are more indiscriminately violent than freedom fighters. But to take a historical case: Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Hungarian prince who is the basis of the legend of Dracula, was quite happy to massacre large numbers of both Turks and his own subjects on any pretext. However his legacy in Hungarian history is that of an anti-Ottoman freedom fighter whilst the Turks certainly regard him as a terrorist. Many other historical examples exist.
    In modern terms, you are a freedom fighter if the United States supports your stance and you are a terrorist if it doesn’t, even if you are doing exactly the same things.

    • Yes Mike the term terrorist is not particularly useful. With Islamic terror attacks I prefer the term Jihaddist. It encompasses a core tenet of Koranic dogma: that is that a true follower of Mohammed will bring the infidel to Allah by any means. The white supremacist should likewise be labelled the same way.

      • “…a core tenet of Koranic dogma: that is that a true follower of Mohammed will bring the infidel to Allah by any means.”

        Corrections:

        The Qur’an does not say or imply anything of the sort — you’ve confused the hadiths of men with that of Scripture.

        The Qur’an is not “dogmatic” — there is no compulsion of religion in Islam.

        • I beg to differ…I have read it.
          Quran 4.89″They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.”
          5.33 “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement”
          8.12 “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

          Theres another 100 or so like this. Its very violent especially if you reject the “true” faith.

  4. Funny how the Charlie Hebdo massacre was portrayed as a “terror attack” whereas last week’s Charleston massacre was not.

    Funny how one was carried out by people claiming to represent, and to be be acting on orders from an clandestine organisation with a global membership and outreach, with a political and religious agenda that overtly states that it undertakes an organised campaign of domestic and military terror. The other a deranged teenager acting alone.

    So yeah, funny that.

  5. Go look at the definition Keith and you’ll understand:

    Terrorism: The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

    The point is that simple violence becomes terrorism only if it’s part of a broader political campaign.

    That I know of, both the Norwegian and Charleston shooters were not allied to any specific political group as were, say, the 9/11 terrorists.

    The Linde Cafe shootings were generally not called terrorism by the authorities or by the media because at the time he was thought to be acting alone and likely insane, although there is now evidence that this may not be the case (but that’s another story)

    Where the definition gets tricky is with a lone wolf attacker who has been inspired by something on the internet intended to recruit jihadists. He is acting alone and without material support but is still part of a wider political campaign.

    • Terrorism: The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

      Didn’t Nazis called the Resistance “terrorists”? When you think about it, WW2 Resistance partisans; the Jewish Irgun in the 1940s; and the South African ANC all fit that definition as well. Or the Mujahideen fighting against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistance in the 1980s. Even the American independence revolutionaries, fighting against King George.

      Perhaps it might be better to look at the underlying causes of why some people take up arms, rather than just slap a convenient label on them, and not bothering to think it through.

      One person’s “terrorist” – another person’s freedom fighter. That might be a cliche, but it happens to be true.

      • You missed the point Frank. The definition is not judgmental. It is not attributing right and wrong as you’re attempting to.

        As regards the ANC, they were classical terrorists. They planted bombs in public places which killed randomly – in fact mainly their own black brothers. They also tortured their own people in infamous ‘training’ camps further north.

        Just because YOU think the cause is pure (it wasn’t) doesn’t mean it’s not terrorism

        • It is not attributing right and wrong as you’re attempting to.

          Actually, Ben,. I believe you are the one “attributing right and wrong” by labelling groups as terrorists. That is a judgement call, and you are attributing your moral perception in the matter.

          Just as Nazis called resistance partisan groups “terrorists”.

          And the Soviets labelled the Mujahideen “terrorists”.

          And the Brits referred to the Irgun as “terrorists”.

          Not doubt the British would’ve referred to Americans during their revolution as “terrorists”, had King George employed the right spin doctors.

    • Seems similar to the debate about the difference between execution and murder. The processes before and during the killing vary a bit but in the end someone stills gets killed.

      • I got roundly rubbished by the bleeding heart absolutists on another blog when I stated that the madman who kidnapped people in Sydney and killed one was a terrorist. I said that because he had committed an act of terror and claimed to be a Jihaddist. No I was told, he wasn’t linked to ISIS or whoever, I said who cares, he committed an act of terror in the name of somebody, linked or not.

        Since then I have as posted above decided terrorist is not really accurate or appropriate. All the “terrorists” commit an act by which people die. They all justify the act of murder with a claim of righteousness based upon something….”spreading democracy”, “the Koran”, etc. We should label the act terror(ist) but name the party as who they are / what they claim to represent. Like Isreal, USA, ISIS etc.

  6. Well, he wasn’t a teenager and he didn’t come up with his racist ideology by himself. White supremacists and extremist muslims who carry out violent attacks in Western countries both seem to be usually self-organised groups and individuals inspired by other organisations, rather than actual members of a group, taking orders from the hierarchy. Whether either are more or less deranged than the other is something of a moot point.

    “Whether you view a person as a terrorist or freedom fighter depends much upon whether you agree with his objectives or not”

    I don’t buy this at all. Terrorism is a particular strategy and methodology – the use of violence to spread fear and thus coerce people into accepting something they otherwise would not – and equally odious no matter who uses it, and for what purpose.

  7. That Norwegian Terrorist for that’s what he is, is most certainly not a Christian. Why one has to associate any right winger with Christianity is beyond me. One must always be wary of equating Christianity with the right. This may be true of certain parts of the US but not here. As a practising Christian who happens to be a very left wing socialist I find this rather silly and ill-informed. If one were to acquire a copy of the New Testament and read it one would find that it is very left wing indeed and the present Pope’s stand on so many social and environmental issues has made him very unpopular with the right, some even branding him a communist.

    • Good point Peter.

      I class myself as ‘conservative’ in the true sense of the word (not the political party) and get annoyed when someone is described as ‘conservative’ because they don’t believe in Evolution.

      Same goes for the term ‘fundamentalist’. The definition has been completely lost when racists and haters are described as “Christian fundamentalists” when it is clear they have completely lost touch with the fundamentals of their religion.

      (I cannot say the same for Muslim Fundamentalists though. Both the Quran and Hadith demand violence in many places so modern Muslim terrorists are in fact Fundamentalists)

  8. “The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”

    What? So official and authorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims isn’t terrorism? Who decided that? So Maronite Christian militias massacring Palestinian civilians in Lebanon, with the backing of the Israeli government, or the Red Army Faction planting bombs with the support of the East German government aren’t terrorists? Does Gaddafi’s backing of the IRA make them official? Go figure.

    • When it’s done overtly, it’s called ‘war’.

      If those instances were done covertly and against civilians they’re examples of terrorism.

      If they were done against an armed enemy then it’s just irregular operations.

      • Andrew – your definitions are so wonderfully black and white. It’s a shame that human warfare doesn’t comply with your demands for such neat delineations.

        I wonder if British black ops during WW2 against Nazais, which resulted in civilian deaths could be called terrorism?

        What about the fire-bombing of Dresden?

        Or when the Soviet Red Army fought against Majahideen in Afghanistan, killing civilians in the process. Was that terrorism?

        Or, American action in Vietnam that resulted in thousands of civilians injured, maimed, killed. Was the My Lai Massacre “terrorism”?

        Closer to home, we have the Rape of Parihaka, where British and Colonial forces rampaged through a peaceful settlement engaged in non-violent resistance. Was that terrorism by the British/Colonists?

        Or is your definition too narrow for that?

  9. Everybody on the receiving end of the war on drugs is well aware of the constant use of linguistic terrorism deployed by the USA.

  10. An article that has little substance or worth.
    I fail to see any lack of condemnation in the designation of “white racist committing a haste crime” and a terrorist. Indeed there is a possibility, albeit small, that terrorist act my have an element of causality giving rise to a small degree of understanding whereas racism and an associated hate crime are by definition never justified, i.e. no scientific basis for racism, hate universally accepted as bad.
    Also the contention that white Americans are never labelled “terrorists” is indicative of either selective information sources or a prejudice.
    A weakness with many otherwise erudite contributors to this site is the alacrity, either directly or indirectly, with which all things US are condemned.

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