Earlier today, three gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, including two policemen.
In the hours since the shooting, politicians and the media have universally condemned the gunmen as “terrorists” and called their actions “terrorism.”
And for good reason, too: the killing of unarmed civilians for apparently political or religious reasons is the classic definition of terrorism.
But would people be as willing to call the Paris attack “terrorism” if the suspects involved were white or members of a right-wing hate group? I don’t think so.
In one really telling quote form earlier today, former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell called the storming of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters “the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the attacks in London in July of 2005.”
Mike Morell apparently can’t remember the actual worst terrorist attack in Europe between the 2005 London bombings and today’s Paris shootings.
I’m talking, of course, about the 2011 Norway attacks, where a white right-wing extremist and racist named Anders Breivik killed 77 people during a rampage through Oslo and a nearby summer camp.
If Breivik’s name were “Omar” and he said that he acted in the name of Islam as opposed to “Europe” and Christianity, I doubt people like Michael Morell would forget who he is or what he did.
But like other white perpetrators of mass political violence, from the guy who shot up a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin a few years ago to the guy who attacked a Kansas JCC this past April, Breivik gets a free pass from the media.
He’s a “mass shooter” or “mass murderer,” not a “terrorist.”
These are other examples, too. Are the guys who aimed loaded guns at federal officers at the Bundy ranch called “terrorists”? They are. Or the people who bombed the NAACP building yesterday in Colorado? Absolutely.
While this might sound like splitting hairs, it’s not.
In our society, calling an act of violence “terrorism” is an extremely powerful statement. It says that that an action is so awful, so beyond what we consider acceptable human behavior, that we must do everything we can to prevent it from happening ever again.
So when we refuse to call acts of violence that really are terrorism “terrorism,” we’re saying as a society that we don’t need to take them as seriously as we would the acts of violence that we do call terrorism.
This has very real world consequences.
According to some estimates, right-wing terrorists have killed more Americans since 9/11 than Islamic terrorists have.
If we don’t call right-wing terrorists “terrorists,” and thus say to the public that they’re just as bad as Islamic terrorists, the public won’t take right-wing terrorism seriously and it will be that much easier for Neo-Nazis to continue to threaten and to kill people without causing much sustained outrage.
Terrorism is an extremely powerful and persuasive word, but thanks to the media double-standards, it’s becoming meaningless.
If we really want to call-out evildoers, let’s call all terrorists “terrorists” or stop using the word altogether.