The tragedies that have bombarded the United States in recent days may prompt many to ask, Why us, what did we do, why here? Terror seems to ambush us in the last places we had come to see as safe: A favorite nightclub, the otherwise-quiet streets in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and a peaceful march in downtown Dallas.
We should have seen it coming, though. In the background of these vicious conflagrations loom several broader public conversations: public discourse around racist police violence and the particularly US problem of gun violence, and global dialogue around society’s systematic militarization amid perpetual, transnational war. These parallel paradoxes reverberate from the battlefields to our neighborhoods, as the moral consequences of both war and everyday cultures of violence intersect on our streets and collective conscience.
A historical arc surrounds all these conversations. The press proclaimed the Dallas attacks on local cops the “deadliest day for law enforcement since 9/11,” inciting political backlash and alarmism. The Twin Cities and Baton Rouge, where police killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, have long wrestled with police violence rooted in racial segregation. The Orlando shooting erupted in Florida’s seedbed of Second-Amendment zealotry. It’s not the suspect’s “criminal history” or “history of violence” that we need to question, but the nation’s history of injustice.
At the same time, this history isn’t just a US legacy, but a global one. The resonance with 9/11 should start on a different note, not of unilateral victimhood, but of nuanced remorse, for the wave of terror that 9/11 set off around the world and back again. The massacre of five Dallas police officers — with headlines suggesting “civil war” — evoke images of “homegrown terror,” but they also echo a transnational valence of conflict. That it followed an emphatically peaceful protest in solidarity with the movement for Black lives reflects the crises facing peace and civil resistance movements worldwide.
It turns out that, as with many other mass shootings, the suspect was a war veteran. The media termed the culprit a “sniper,” using a method of targeted assassination that, when used on dark-skinned people abroad, is glamorized by our popular culture as clean, rational and intelligent (just like our military drones). The incident ended with a bomb detonation: In response to a bomb threat that apparently never materialized, the police reacted with their own bomb lobbed by a robot. The tactic, a first on US soil, is commonly deployed by the US military in Iraq. This marks a chilling parallel to both the 9/11 analogy and the suspect’s military history.
Similar intersections colored the narratives of Orlando, the Disney-fied city depicting a cosmopolitan vision of the modern US. Here, another “lone wolf” carried out a massacre with almost-cinematically horrific precision, playing to the media with braggadocious terrorist threats (in a similar tone as the panic-inducing exchange during the Dallas standoff before the robot strike). Though the alleged ISIS ties proved flimsy, the killer understood the power of spectacle and knew how post-9/11-era media can wield violence purely through brutal imagery. Frontline combat destroys bodies, but the Pentagon’s brand of detached, borderless, media-driven and often, gamified warfare operates deep in our psyches.
The real terrorism connections are not so obvious. Civil libertarians and experts have critiqued the use of a “bomb robot” by Dallas police as a dangerous twist on a counterterrorism weapon ostensibly intended to save lives, not take them. The robot represents a trend toward SWAT-type militarization of local police that has been underway since 9/11. (While many departments now emphasize “community-oriented policing,” there’s been an overall pattern of racking up military-style gear since 9/11 in many cities.) Is it any wonder, then, that the trajectory of this terrorist act traces back to Ground Zero, and it eventually made its way to Dixie, with the police deploying a cutting edge technology of the “war on terror?” We should remember the history of the most ferocious military-style policing being deployed to extinguish Black lives (as it was in past generations, targeting black radical movements from Fred Hampton to The MOVE).
The connection is not just in the machinery but in the neurological sinews of war. The mental corrosion of post-traumatic stress has been empirically linked to aggression and violence among veterans. We are reminded of what comes home with our troops, to haunt us even after so-called “withdrawal.”
Perhaps the most concrete tie between the Orlando shooter and the “war on terror” is his former employer, G4S, a security contractor that has partnered with many governments, including Washington, as a counterterrorism mercenary. Its personnel have come under public scrutiny for links to other violent crimes, and its brand perfectly encapsulates the blend of state violence, technology and neoliberalism that fuels contemporary warfare.
In the St. Paul area, where a routine traffic stop recently turned into another brutal killing of a Black man, both police violence and the “war on terror” have permeated communities of color. In addition to racially biased policing generally, the Somali-American community has for years faced anti-Muslim sentiment as Homeland Security’s counterterrorism gauntlet has profiled and surveilled countless residents with vaguely suspected “terrorist ties.”
It’s not so much that terror has invaded the US, but that our culture of violence was exported, incubated and rebranded abroad before creeping back over our borders. Dallas held a mirror to a foreign-inflected version of the all-American alchemy of guns, dehumanizing racism, militarism and structural violence. Officials tell us, “The answer is never violence” — while legitimizing state violence under the guise of “security.”
As we reflect on these days of violence, we can mourn while understanding that, in part, the killings represent the domestic casualties of global warfare — and this is war in which our state is the aggressor. The lesson isn’t about karma, but solidarity. Black Lives Matter has always had a global orientation. The movement has confronted racism in tandem with imperialism and colonialism. Similarly, the aftermath of the Orlando shooting brought out migrant and Muslim voices carrying a countervailing message of peace.
The sense of globalized terror should not be felt as a call to arms, but an enraged cry for civil, social and racial justice. While disenfranchised communities are under siege, taking a global perspective elucidates the universal struggle for dignity: Those who survive and bear witness, on the streets at home and in conflict zones abroad, are all refugees of interlocking crises.