In the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, we have seen a predictable flow of think pieces and debates about what should be done to prevent future tragedies, and about what terms we should use to describe these events. In addition to familiar calls for gun control, we have seen ubiquitous calls for the racist, white perpetrators of these heinous acts to be described as terrorists. Demands that we “call it what it is” echo across social media platforms, as though the word “terrorism” has some transformative power that could open a path to justice.
In reality, the official application of the word terrorism in these particular cases would lead to no further consequences for the El Paso gunman, who is already facing the death penalty, or for the Dayton gunman, who was shot dead by police. But rallying behind the label of terrorism — and by extension the “war on terror” that accompanies it — does have implications for the rest of us.
The word terrorism holds a boogeyman-like status in our society. In moments of grief and shock, it makes sense that people would want to grab hold of this word, and apply it to acts they find truly heinous.
But before progressives pour their energies into campaigns demanding that these attacks be classified as acts of domestic terrorism, we would do well to consider the threats posed by the state itself in this era of looming fascist political transformations.
Terrorism is always defined from a position of power. It is a label used at the discretion of law enforcement and public officials, who often manipulate it to fabricate threats to life and liberty where they do not exist. The word has been used to strip away liberties in the United States and to wreak endless militaristic havoc abroad. It has become the hall pass of the military-industrial complex, as wars the public no longer takes notice of play out overseas, and as our military continues to expand its violent presence in Africa and elsewhere.
The specter of further terrorism after 9/11 was weaponized to spin lies into endless wars and to pass laws targeting environmental and animal rights activists who had harmed no human or animal. It led to the creation of Homeland Security, an agency that is currently committing atrocities along the border and throughout the United States. Muslim communities, in the United States and abroad, have been subject to Islamophobic profiling, heightened surveillance, travel bans, torture and routine acts of militarized violence as a result of post-9/11 fearmongering.
Amid so much state-sanctioned suffering, we must acknowledge that these nightmares have been facilitated by our surrender to structures we hope will protect us.
In “America’s Addiction to Terrorism,” Henry Giroux wrote, “The war on terrorism has extended the discourse, space, location, and time of war in ways that have made it unbounded and ubiquitous, turning everyone into a potential terrorist and bringing the battle home to be fought in domestic sites as well as foreign ones.” In other words, the label of terrorism has amounted to a license to kidnap, torture and kill without consequence, even under the often-idealized leadership of the Obama administration. In the current moment, our fears have put us at risk once again of handing off this license, even as a fascist demagogue sits in the White House — the very man who rallied this violence in the first place.
A Move Taken From the Fascist Playbook
For a government to create instability through violence, and then respond with repressive measures that supposedly aim to quell that violence, is a move right out of the fascist playbook. Trump has demonized the populations he has targeted to such an extent that fans at his rallies have cried out that asylum seekers should be shot — a suggestion that caused Trump to chuckle, as though the idea of gunning down migrants were an entertaining one. He has used words like “infested” — a word that implies a need for extermination — about both immigrants and Black people, and he has sought to prevent immigrants from entering the country with a barrage of policies, which include his infamous Muslim bans. Trump has also bragged that he has the support of “tough people” who “don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
Trump acted in an instructive manner when he repeatedly praised and even considered pardoning Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who faced trial for the murder of a teenage POW. Gallagher unexpectedly stabbed the captured teen in the neck repeatedly, killing the young man even as a SEAL medic attempted to save him. Gallagher then posed for photos with the boy’s limp head in one hand and his knife in the other. Gallagher also stood accused of gunning down a young girl for no discernable reason, firing rockets at houses without cause and indiscriminately firing a machine gun at an Iraqi village, again without any specific target or cause, among other crimes.
While Trump did not follow through on his reported plan to pardon Gallagher and other military personnel accused of war crimes (a plan that even Gallagher’s lawyer found surprising), he remained supportive of Gallagher’s cause. When the Navy Seal was ultimately acquitted, in spite of the testimony of fellow Navy Seals who witnessed his crimes, Trump congratulated Gallagher and his family on Twitter, saying, “Congratulations to Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, his wonderful wife Andrea, and his entire family. You have been through much together. Glad I could help!”
By repeatedly alluding to the potential violence of his fan base, and by glorifying war criminals and normalizing their murderous actions, Trump has played into a script that stokes violence among his supporters.
Fascism, as an ideology, feeds on the discontent of people who believe they are being displaced from their proper station by scapegoated populations. Those who imagine they have been wronged are assured by fascistic leadership that there is a way to reclaim their former greatness. A mythology develops around the supposedly wronged population’s history, one that claims there was a moment in time when each member of the aggrieved group would have enjoyed the prosperity, safety and respect that their identity supposedly demands. Irrational fears that marginalized groups are seeking to replace the more dominant group are fostered by propaganda that dehumanizes and vilifies the targeted group. The scapegoated population is ultimately targeted for redemptive violence that, under fascism, is eventually enacted with impunity.
We have seen that impunity modelled in Trump’s support of war criminals, his encouragement of police brutality, and his allusions to the violence of his base. When his fans chanted, “Send her back!” after Trump criticized Ilhan Omar, Trump not only paused to allow for the chant, but also insisted, amid a vague statement of disapproval the next day, that the chant was uttered by people who “love our country.” Trump’s encouragement is functionally comparable to the praise that users of the insidious /pol message board on the website 8chan have heaped upon the El Paso shooter, whom they have claimed as “our guy” as they celebrate the massacre.
Trump’s Fascistic Misdirection
While many abhor the horrific bigotry and exaltation of violence exhibited on 8chan — where mass shooters Brenton Tarrant (of the Christchurch shooting), Robert Gregory Bowers (of the Poway Synagogue shooting) and Patrick Crusius all posted manifestos prior to their killing sprees — the glorification and encouragement of horrific acts has also occurred at the highest levels of government, while those who have sought to stop fascistic violence have been vilified as terrorists.
The demonization of antifa is a profound example of how the word terrorism is deployed by a government that is, itself, an ongoing source of terror. White supremacists have been responsible for an escalating number of murders under Trump. Conversely, there have been no deadly antifa attacks in the United States, and yet, Trump has referred to antifa as a “a major Organization of Terror.” Trump has also compared antifa to MS-13, a violent, criminal organization that Trump has previously invoked in order to vilify immigrants. Trump and his allies have employed scare tactics and misinformation in their efforts to designate antifa as terrorists, just as environmental and animal rights activists were deemed terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. In the hands of the U.S. government, the idea of terrorism is molded opportunistically to ensnare people whom the government would like to cage or otherwise disappear.
From criminalization to indefinite detention, torture and extrajudicial executions, we have seen what happens when the word terrorism, along with our own grief and fear, is weaponized by the U.S. government. In recent years, we have seen the concept of terrorism deployed against Black activists, as the FBI conjured the designation of “Black Identity Extremist,” and against migrants attempting to cross the border, with government officials making fictitious claims that thousands of suspected terrorists have been apprehended at the southern border while attempting to enter the United States.
When the president spoke on Monday, reading a teleprompter script that condemned hate and the “glorification of violence,” he called for “cultural” change. But one carefully scripted speech cannot erase the substance of Trump’s presidency, nor can these sentiments be expected to outlast the current news cycle. After the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Trump delivered his famous “both sides” remarks, claiming that there were good people amid the white supremacists whose violence left anti-racist activists and marginalized people around the country utterly traumatized. Trump briefly pivoted from that position in a speech that specifically condemned white supremacy, but the president’s shift in tone quickly faltered, as he returned to rhetoric that offered cover to the white supremacists who wreaked havoc in Charlottesville the next day.
What can be expected to linger long after Trump’s remarks on Monday are the measures he announced and called for that could lead to further repression and violence. Playing into long-debunked stigmas that vilify mentally ill people, Trump suggested on Monday that mental illness “pulls the trigger” when white supremacists attack. Trump also frighteningly suggested that mentally ill people who are characterized as dangerous by the government should be subject to involuntary commitment. The potential implications of such a policy, for activists, dissident writers, and other opponents of fascism — especially those who have been open about their struggles with mental illness — are chilling.
Trump has also suggested that universal background checks, a reform measure that many liberals have long demanded, should be “married” to an overhaul of immigration law. Trump has forwarded this proposal, which would surely further his anti-immigrant agenda, in spite of the fact that Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric has fueled major escalations in hate-related violence.
Some veteran members of the FBI, including Dave Gomez, a former FBI supervisor who oversaw terrorism cases, have stated that white supremacist groups have not been properly investigated under Trump because, in Gomez’s words, “There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base.”
Upon hearing Trump call for a greater policing of the internet, who among us believes that such efforts, under his leadership, will be directed at his right-wing base, rather than his left-wing opponents?
As Trump talks of allocating more resources for law enforcement, who among us believes that law enforcement agencies, which are themselves purveyors of racist violence and which are acting under the leadership of a fascistic president, will direct those resources in a manner that safeguards marginalized people?
And who among us believes that the weaponization of mental health care as a means of incarceration, at the behest of the president, will not be used to attack people who Trump views as his enemies?
When Trump speaks of policing social media to root out those who might commit violent acts and subject them to involuntary commitment, we would be foolish to believe that such a fate would befall actual fascists, rather than those who oppose them.
We must exercise great caution when rallying behind language that could have violent consequences. In the United States, the government response to acts that are officially recognized as terrorism involves the expansion of mass surveillance, the rollback of civil liberties, acts of kidnapping, torture and the expansion of the military-industrial complex and the mass violence it perpetrates. We must recognize that the leader of our own government has played a key role in delivering us to this moment. Therefore, we cannot rely on language that will only serve to further empower him and the state agencies that routinely enact white supremacist violence. We must instead begin a wide-reaching public dialogue about the nature and present-day impact of fascist ideology — an ideology that has penetrated the halls of executive power as surely as it inhabits dark corners of the internet.