Shifting Images of Terror

Shifting Images of Terror August 30, 2019

For some thirty years, I have written and taught about the topic of terrorism, including in my 2003 book Images of Terror. I talk about specific movements and actions, but more broadly about the larger issues of interpretation that are so vital in determining official responses. Centrally, how do we know what we think we know about terrorism? We presently stand at a critical turning point in attitudes to terrorism, although the core issues at stake are receiving nothing like the attention they deserve. I cover this here because the outcomes do so much to determine attitudes to religion and religious movements.

To over-simplify the argument: the US is now facing calls to focus law enforcement efforts on violence from far-Right and white nationalist groups. This has been especially in evidence following recent mass shooting attacks at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the Walmart in El Paso, both of which were evidently and egregiously acts of terrorism; and there have been other atrocities. Paying full attention to ultra-Right terrorism is a desirable (essential) policy, which I have myself been advocating in print since the 1980s. But such a domestic shift of emphasis would be a disastrous blunder if it meant ignoring or underplaying the continuing threat from external groups, above all Islamists.

This is not (or should not be) a zero-sum game. To pay attention to one does not mean, and must not mean, underplaying the other. If we, collectively, make the wrong call here, the consequences will be catastrophic.

Terrorism: Insider and Outsiders

The definition of terrorism is a highly political phenomenon, a subjective, complex, and often self-contradictory process; and (common perceptions to the contrary) the stigma is applied in a thoroughly selective and partisan way. No less ideological is the question of which particular kinds of terrorism are viewed as more threatening, more serious, and more demanding of official action. Since the 1970s, this has been a matter of real partisan division within the US, and each interpretation has weighty policy consequences.

Broadly, right-wing or conservative thinkers focus on terrorism as something that comes from outside the country, usually carried out by foreign or international movements. Domestic terror within the US is organized or mobilized by such external forces, and the Soviet/Cuban role in such activism was a topic for fierce debate in the 1980s. After 9/11, this view triumphed to the extent that “real” terrorism seemed of its nature to be the product of the Middle East, and of Islam. If this view is correct, then fighting terrorism demands strong support for defense and the military, and for the intelligence services. US forces can strike at the groups and nations that organize that terrorism, or otherwise deter them. The Reagan-era policy of supporting counter-revolutionary groups in Central America and elsewhere was justified as retaliation for Soviet support for terrorism in the West. Terrorism is thus a foreign import, which can be excluded. That has implications for immigration policy, and for attitudes towards groups of foreign origin in the US. It also has far reaching foreign policy implications in the Middle East, and attitudes to Israel.

In contrast, leftist or liberal groups focus on domestic terrorism, commonly of the far Right, from the Ku Klux Klan to modern day White nationalists. They complain that such movements are not treated as “real” terrorism, whereas in reality they are far more harmful. If this “insider” view is correct, then authorities need to reorient their efforts away from foreign threats – Communist or Islamic – and focus instead on the far Right in all its manifestations.

Guilt By Association

Each of these views has extensive policy consequences. No investigation of such violence can focus on active terrorists alone, as such individuals do not helpfully walk around with T-shirts proclaiming TERRORIST. When an individual shows that s/he actually is a terrorist, then this is normally in the aftermath of an incident in which many people have died, and it is already too late to do anything useful. Terrorism must thus be prevented, and that of necessity means surveillance and infiltration of groups, movements or institutions that are believed to be close to the actual perpetrators.

Anti-terrorist investigation must of necessity be pre-emptive, a point that cannot be sufficiently stressed. If you think that Islamism is the dominant threat, then you infiltrate, penetrate, and run surveillance of mosques or Islamic organizations or charities. If you see the far Right as the deadliest enemy, then you operate similar activities against related institutions, which might mean (for instance) churches, neo-Confederate groups, gun rights groups, or other networks. In both cases, that also means close surveillance of Internet activities.

That means that you can’t fight terrorism without imposing some burdens and some stigma on groups and individuals that might not actually be committing a crime. Where to draw the line is very difficult indeed. The FBI has for instance received bitter criticism for identifying “Black Identity Extremists,” in an effort to predict and prevent anti-police terrorist attacks such as have occurred in recent years. The inevitable problem is that some people at least will accuse the agency of identifying everyone and anyone campaigning for racial justice as a potentially violent extremist.

But one fundamental and long-standing tactic of active, hard-core, “real” terrorists is to base themselves clandestinely within legitimate and above-ground organizations, so that those well meaning and strictly law-abiding people – environmentalists, pacifists, social justice activists, civil rights campaigners, religious adherents  – will bear the brunt of official intervention, and respond accordingly. The more those groups protest, the more that discredits government and law enforcement. That tactic is called “insulation,” and anyone writing about terrorism seriously needs to know about it.

You can of course decide that you are not going to operate this kind of surveillance and infiltration at all, but if you do that, a great many innocent people are going to die.

My Terrorists and Your Terrorists

Focusing on one kind of terrorism rather than another – outsider or insider – casts a stigma that is enormously damaging. If Islamism is portrayed as synonymous with terrorism, that is very bad news indeed for Muslims in general, including those who have nothing whatever to do with violence or illegality. If the focus is on “white supremacy,” then that kind of guilt by association will be invoked by activists against any number of non-violent causes, in debates over campus free speech, or abortion, or immigration. Watch as the far Right/terrorism label expands to cover much of the “Religious Right.”

Labels have consequences. This is a process that scholars of communication know well: they call it contextualization, or mapping together. Or maybe collateral damage.

Hence the political debate over terrorism in recent years, and the regular demands to portray one kind of violence as more frequent or severe that another. You certainly will have seen the claims that (for instance) the FBI records more incidents as coming from the far Right than from Islamists, therefore this must be “real” terrorism. Typically, an article in Slate argued that “After this weekend, right-wing terrorists have killed more people on U.S. soil than jihadis have since 9/11. So why is the government’s focus still on Islamic radicalism?”

I won’t go into this in detail here as I am writing on this for some other outlets. But my basic issue is that such official statistics actually give no worthwhile idea of the threat posed by particular groups, as we simply have no idea of how many attacks are being pre-empted. Unlike regular criminal justice, anti-terrorism activities are clandestine of their nature, to the extent that arresting or trying suspects actually represents a failure.

Counting the number of victims killed by either side or movement has literally and precisely nothing to do with the potential threat level posed by that movement: it is a statement of the efficacy of official intervention and pre-emption. It might well be Movement A has in fact killed very few victims, but it has the potential to become a catastrophic military and political threat. Movement B has been bloodier to date, but its potential is strictly limited.

When people make claims about the relative importance of the different type of threat without taking account of such factors, they are showing themselves to be either unpardonably ignorant, or disingenuous. There really is no excuse.

The Terrorists We Decide Not to See

I repeat, it’s not a zero sum game. In the clandestine world, different forces and factions work together in ways that seem outrageous when we consider their notional ideological structures. We repeatedly see one aspect of that in the many collaborations and overlaps through thy years between the far Right/White Supremacists and the Islamists. In Europe in the 1980s, there were several attacks – especially against Jewish targets – where we still honestly don’t know which of the two was to blame, Islamists or far Right.

In the US, the Islamic State apparently got its ideas of lone wolf/phantom cell attacks from the American neo-Nazi William Pierce, in his critically important (and still under-studied) 1989 book Hunter. Although the origins of the Oklahoma City attack are much debated, strands lead back from a homegrown phantom cell to European neo-Nazis, who were in dialogue with Islamists. It’s a complex world out there.

So please, let’s fight terrorism from the internal Right as well as from external forces, which chiefly means Islamic extremists. But let’s never engage in competitions about “My terrorists are more threatening than your terrorists.” And let’s not leave either ideological side off limits. The last time we had a situation like we face today was in the late 1990s, when media, politicians, and bureaucracies decided that White Supremacists and Far Right militias were the entirety of the terror threat, and anyone who mentioned Islamists (or al-Qaeda) was racist, Islamophobic or plain ignorant. That particular road led straight to 9/11.

This really is a matter of life and death.

More next time.



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