Let's Actually Not Call Everything Terrorism
One thing that frustrates me (among many many things) in the wake of mass shootings recently is the enthusiasm on the left to label them as terrorism. The problem with our reaction to these events is not that we are too slow to label white people "terrorists." It's that we're much much too quick to label brown people terrorists and – more importantly – call for the swift and unconstitutional justice that so often accompanies that label.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as:
The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.
That definition is quite clear – at least as far as politically laden terms can be so. The word carries negative connotations that make people who believe that their political aims are just inclined to resist the label, but there is less ambiguity than we like to think.
A deranged shooter who kills dozens of civilians is a mass murderer, but perhaps not a terrorist. A deranged shooter who kills dozens of civilians at a Planned Parenthood or at a Congressional baseball game might be both. The "pursuit of political aims" is crucial in the definition.
In the current environment, we should incredibly careful about applying that term to anyone. Being dubbed a terrorist is one step from being designated an "enemy combatant" and having rights of all sorts suspended or revoked or otherwise trampled.
Part of the genius of ISIS's strategy is the blurring of this line. If an al Qaeda affiliate carried out an attack of some sort, they would very obviously be terrorists and probably be reasonably called enemy combatants (even if I abhor the suspension of rights that comes along with that term). ISIS seeks to inspire lone wolf attacks wherein they very possibly simply invest with meaning disturbed individuals with suicidal and murderous impulses already. It's difficult to know where the disturbed individual ends and the political agenda begins.
The right course is not to insist that we call anyone who kills people a terrorist, but to insist that we apply that label only in situations where it is genuinely appropriate. The problem is not that we don't immediately term white mass murderers "terrorists." The problem is that we automatically term brown mass murderers "terrorists" and enthusiastically so.
In the wake of the Halloween afternoon attack in New York that killed eight, Donald Trump tweeted eight times to express his rage and advocate revoking immigration policies that may have admitted the perpetrator into the country. He called for "swift justice" and demanded he be sent to Guantanamo Bay and tried by a military tribunal (I don't think Trump is aware that that is what happens at Guantanamo, but the implication is the same). He finally abandoned those appeals and simply called for a swift execution. His reaction was similar in the wake of the ISIS inspired killings at a nightclub in Florida.
His reaction in the face of dozens of deaths and scores more wounded in Las Vegas and twenty-six murders in San Antonio, both committed by lone white men, was the picture of presidential calm and poise. He offered prayers for the victims, and refrained from pushing an agenda in their wake. Republicans in general (several of whom supported calls for designating the New York suspect an "enemy combatant") reacted the same way and called for putting politics aside in the wake of the tragedy.
We should not be asking the president to call more people terrorists. We should be asking him why a brown man who kills needs to be stripped of due process, sent to Guantanamo Bay, and executed swiftly. We should be asking how he differs from the white men who killed so many in Texas and Las Vegas. Or perhaps more pointedly how he differs from the white men who committed equally political mass shootings at the Congressional baseball field and the Colorado Planned Parenthood which generated no such calls from the President (or presidential candidate in the case of the latter).
We should strip terrorism from the conversation and ask simply why the President of the United States wields his bully pulpit in abhorrent ways calling for anti-constitutional treatment of suspects when they have brown skin or worship in a mosque, but not when the suspect is white. The President has little use for due process or restraint or constitutional protections in general and we should not legitimize his gleeful invocation of terrorism by encouraging him to use the term more frequently. We should call his disdain for due process exactly that, regardless of the crime or the criminal and should point out his obvious racism every time it rears its head.
Calling for white men to be dubbed terrorists as frequently as brown men legitimizes the arbitrary justice that accompanies such a designation in the hands of a president who gleefully advocates the use of such arbitrary justice against political enemies and religious, ethnic, and racial minorities. Instead we should call for brown men to be dubbed terrorists as infrequently as their white counterparts, and, when the label is appropriate, avoid throwing out every single one of the constitutional principles that we claim to be defending.