Why We Don’t — But Should — Call White Supremacist Shooters “Terrorists”

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Imagine this scenario: a crowd of largely white people takes to the streets in a town near you, demanding an end to Islamist terrorism. A group of militants waving ISIS banners turns up to harass the protesters, and when the protesters attempt to usher them away, the militants open fire, injuring five people. What do you think the media would call the people doing the shooting?

You can probably see where this is going: In Minneapolis last night, white militants opened fire on a peaceful demonstration against the police killing of Jamar Clark, a black man who was allegedly already handcuffed and on the ground when the fatal shot was fired. According to Misky Noor, a Black Lives Matter spokesperson quoted here, “A group of white supremacists showed up at the protest, as they have done most nights.” When protesters asked them to leave, they opened fire. Five people were injured.

The Facebook page for Black Lives Matter Minneapolis described the events as “an act of domestic terrorism.” And by any definition of the word, the group is entirely correct: If terrorism is the use of violence to create fear in an attempt to pursue political ends, then this was terrorism, plain and simple. It was white supremacists attempting to intimidate black protesters into abandoning their protests against state violence. It was an attempt to create a climate of fear. But you won’t see the shooters referred to as terrorists today in the mainstream media, not even in generally liberal outlets like the Guardian (where they’re “white male suspects”) or the New York Times (where they’re “gunmen”).

Why? The obvious answer is “because racism,” but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The history of the term “terrorism” is an object lesson in the state control of language, and why the words we use don’t just describe the world around us — they shape it. Because here’s the thing: the word terrorisme first gained currency in the context of the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution, and as such, it referred to the use of state power to repress dissent. (You can argue about exactly what “state power” meant during that chaotic period, but generally it was whoever was in power who was beheading whoever wasn’t.)

At first, then, terrorism meant the repression of the majority (the general population) by the minority (whoever was in power) by means of creating a climate of overwhelming fear. These days, though, we see it as something different. By the 1970s and ’80s, we’d come to associate “terrorism” with masked figures at the Munich Olympics and the bombing of airliners, with Lockerbie and The Troubles, with the IRA and the PLO.

And then, of course, there was 9/11 and the War on Terror. None of these things had anything to do with the enforcement of state power — they referred to challenges to state power. Specifically, “terrorism” came to refer to the actions of the relatively powerless in what came to be called asymmetric warfare. Confronted with military power that was so overwhelming as to be impossible to defeat on a battlefield, combatants resorted to other means to pursue their objectives. And, of course, it came with pejorative connotations — the idea that the targeting of civilians was dishonorable, as if civilian casualties weren’t also a feature of literally every other form of warfare.

From being a word that referred to the oppression of the majority by a minority, “terrorism” became a word that referred to a minority attempting to oust an overwhelmingly powerful majority. This is unsurprising, I guess — if you’re the one who’s in power, then you’re the one who gets to define the words, and “terrorism” isn’t exactly a flattering description of your attempts to impose your power on the general public. But rebranding the word this way was also impressively disingenuous, because what’s more terrifying: the risk that you might be unlucky enough to be caught up in an isolated attack, or the risk that literally anything you do to challenge power will invite overwhelming retribution?

The randomness of what we call “terrorist acts” is certainly part of their power to terrify, but then, so is the utter relentlessness of state power. I’m lucky enough to be a relatively privileged white person, but I’m still not going to do anything that gets me mixed up with the police in America, and I’m going to hope that I’m never unlucky enough that such a thing might happen despite my best efforts to avoid it. I’ll go to a concert, despite the risk that I might end up like the poor people at the Bataclan in Paris. I won’t go to a protest, because I might well a) get arrested, b) get deported, and c) if I’m really unlucky, be the one white guy who the police put in a chokehold for a bit too long and ends up dead.

That fear is multiplied exponentially, of course, if you’re black. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re in conflict with police, there’s an extremely good chance it’s going to end very, very badly for you. That outcome might even happen despite your best efforts to avoid any such conflict: you might be Sandra Bland, pulled over for a triviality and found dead in a cell three days later. You might be John Crawford, shot dead without warning while holding a BB gun that you picked up from a shelf in Wal-Mart. You might be Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot dead without warning in a public park while holding a toy gun. Or your death might have nothing to do with the police: You might be Renisha McBride, shot dead after knocking on someone’s door for help after a car accident. You might be Trayvon Martin, shot for walking through the wrong neighborhood by a guy who got off scot-free.

None of those killers were called terrorists, but they are, of a sort: they are all representative of a state apparatus that enforces its power by fear of both overwhelming retribution and random violence. If you stand up like a nail, you will get hammered down — but you might just get hammered down anyway. This is a synthesis of both of our previous definitions of terrorism, a sort of Hegelian uberterrorism: the repression of a minority by an overwhelmingly powerful majority.

Specifically, in America, black people are a minority by any conceivable measure. White people surpass them in terms of numbers, income, health, and pretty much any other metric you can think of. The asymmetry of power is absolute. (As Ghostface Killah once put it on GZA’s “Investigative Reports,” “Aim at the white shadows with big barrels/ They used guns while we angrily shot arrows.”) And yet, because it’s the relatively powerless who are the victims of terror, the word is never used.

So let’s be honest: white supremacists who shoot up a Black Lives Matter rally are terrorists, plain and simple. But that’s not all they are. They’re de facto instruments of a state that has inflicted a similar terror for generations. If you’re the right sort of person — white, affluent, lucky — America is a great place to live, a nation of opportunity and prosperity. But the structure that supports that state is built on oppression, and that oppression is enforced by systemic terror.