Last month, Federal Bureau of Investigation authorities launched several raids against a Christian militia group known as the “Hutaree.” According to the authorities, members of the group had allegedly planned to kill a police officer and then kill more officers by bombing his funeral. Although widely maligned on the Right, the report by the Department of Homeland Security was indeed correct: namely, that the threat from right-wing extremist groups is growing. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors domestic hate groups, has recently corroborated the findings of the DHS. This comes on the heel of the attack on the IRS building in Texas by Joseph Stark and the shooting at the Pentagon by a lone gunman.
Yet, what is astonishing about these incidents, apart from the temerity of both the attacks and the alleged Hutaree plan, is the near universal reluctance to call these individuals what they truly are: domestic terrorists. Only a handful of commentators – such as Rachel Maddow, Glenn Greenwald, among a few others – have stated what is quite obvious. The Chicago Sun-Times actually surprised me with their headline after the arrests: “Homegrown Terror” printed over the pictures of the 9 arrested men.
Yet, the FBI Agent in charge of the investigation in Michigan said, “This is an example of radical and extremist fringe groups which can be found throughout our society. The FBI takes such extremist groups seriously.” Notice the glaring absence of the word “terrorist.” Yet, what else would a plan to kill a police officer and then bomb the funeral be called except an alleged act of terrorism? Not only that, there were actually expressions of sympathy and support for the alleged Hutaree terrorists; after Joseph Stack crashed his plane into the IRS building, a Facebook page was set up in support for him, with several people calling him a “hero” (it was later taken down).
Imagine if the Hutaree were not Christian extremists, but American Muslims? Would there be any doubt that they would immediately be called terrorists? Remember Hesham Mohamed Hedayet? He was the gunman who opened fire at an El-Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport. Until the authorities confirmed that his motive was financial difficulties, everyone was screaming “terrorism.” “Terror” quickly rolled off the tongues of commentators after the Fort Hood shootings, when a Muslim Army psychiatrist opened fire against his fellow soldiers. Yet, when a gunman in Florida opened fire on his co-workers almost immediately after, no one called that shooting an act of terrorism.
Is there a deep-seated bias against Muslims in the minds of most Americans, which makes it easy for them to dismiss all Muslims as terrorists? Partly, perhaps. Recent polls have indicated that 4 out of 10 Americans admit to harboring negative attitudes toward Muslims. Yet, this is likely due to ignorance, for most Americans – according to the same polls – have very little contact with their Muslim neighbors. When Americans get to know their fellow American Muslims, much of the bias disappears.
Have the Islamophobes succeeded in painting Muslims into the box of terror? Has their oft-repeated mantra, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim,” permeated successfully into the mainstream mindset? Again, perhaps partly. Yet, there may be something else in the background that is contributing to this double standard when it comes to terror.
Looking at the pictures of the 9 men arrested, there is nothing out of the ordinary about them. They are as “ordinary looking” as any other American. I suspect that many Americans may see themselves in the 9 militia members who were arrested and charged. It may be difficult for them to see that these are alleged terrorists because that may mean that anyone, including themselves, has the potential to become so criminal as to plan to bomb a police officer’s funeral. It is much easier to see the “other” as being depraved enough to become a terrorist; it is much more difficult to see it in yourself or someone you know.
But the fact remains that anyone – foreign or domestic, Christian or Muslim – can become a terrorist. Terror has no ethnicity or religion, despite what some may say to the contrary. Indeed, Dr. Gary Cass of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission echoed this sentiment when he said, “Even if they identify themselves as Christians, what they were allegedly planning is absolutely contrary to Christianity. They may have illicitly co-opted the Christian faith to justify their murderous intentions, but it is defamatory for the media to keep referring to them as Christians. They are simply terrorists.” Our point exactly. After the arrest of the Hutaree, one would hope more Americans will come to understand the same with Muslims.