Elliot Rodger: domestic terrorist?

Below are some of my thoughts on Elliot Rodger’s rampage, which took place on Friday, May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California.

Interrogation of the manipulable term “terrorist” is a theme to which I often return in my writings and my thoughts. In my experience, the specific moniker of “terrorist” is nearly always reserved for people of colour, and particularly for individuals who identify as Muslim. I also sense that the distinction between a “terrorist” and, for instance, a violent, white, non-Muslim man like Rodger, is largely arbitrary. After all, misogyny is a political ideology inasmuch as are the vindictive forms of pseudo-Islamic guerrilla warfare practiced by groups like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. (In fact, those groups would seem to have more substantive grievances than the gripes Rodger expressed—although of course that fact does not remotely excuse suicide bombings that target civilians, or mass kidnappings and killings of innocent school children in Nigeria.)

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki recorded a series of videos, in which he appeared to endorse violence against civilians.

Officials in the U.S. were alerted to al-Awlaki’s pronouncements, and in April of 2010, President Obama placed the alleged jihadi terrorist on his CIA “kill list.” The agency proceeded to dispatch unmanned weaponized drones to Yemeni airspace in an effort to locate al-Awlaki and extinguish his life. In September of the following year, a drone commanded by a pilot thousands of miles away launched the hellfire missile that pulverized him.

As if to forestall a tale of retribution reminiscent of Greek tragedy, another CIA-led drone strike slaughtered the imam’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, two weeks later. However, there was no evidence that al-Awlaki the younger had been involved in any jihadi activity, or expressed favourable inclinations toward his father’s convictions.

Although both the al-Awlakis were American citizens, they conformed to a particular profile of “terrorist”: a standard caricature consistent with the parameters of white, American and Judeo-Christian supremacy.

Anwar al-Awlaki identified as Muslim; he wore a beard and a turban, had dark skin, brown hair, an Arabic name. For years he secluded himself in the foothills of Yemen, and substantive evidence pointed to connections he had forged with members of al-Qaeda. But al-Awlaki was never offered his day in court (a Yemeni judiciary had convicted him in absentia), his rightful opportunity to defend himself against allegations of conspiracy to kill and membership in a terrorist organization. His teenage son was never even charged with an indictable offence.

That is the evidentiary and juridical standard the U.S. government applies to a particular type of would-be offender.

In the years leading up to last Friday’s rampage, Elliot Rodger posted a series of videos on Youtube, in which he uttered threats of violence against civilians.

His parents had alerted officials to his diatribes weeks prior, as it became increasingly apparent to them that their son intended ill. Police interviewed the young man, and found him to be “polite and courteous”—an observation that apparently affirmed their belief that he was unlikely to carry out the demented visions he had described in the videos. (One wonders whether the CIA might have drawn similar conclusions about either of the al-Awlakis, had agents from that organization bothered to interview them.)

Rodger constructed his ideology upon the toxic foundations of misogyny and male entitlement. Records of his online activity suggest that he sympathized with men’s rights advocacy (MRA)—a dogma which holds that feminists (“misandrists”) have gained excessive political and social power in Western liberal democratic societies, and should be brought to heel. As his worldview hardened, he became emphatic in his determination to penalize those who had attained greater happiness in life than he—and to do so by bringing their lives to an early and bloody end. He crafted an elaborate narrative of personal woe and victimhood, a fantasy in which other human beings—and especially attractive young women—owed him both companionship and sexual gratification. Their failure or unwillingness to provide him those pleasures, according to Rodger’s twisted reasoning, was grounds for murderous retribution.

The victims of Rodger’s killing spree included two young women, three of his housemates, and a 23-year-old man who was standing outside of a deli. After being wounded in a shootout with police, Rodger turned one of his firearms on himself—adding yet another youngster’s name to the death toll.

Over the past two decades, mass shootings have sadly become a fixture in the American news cycle. As numerous researchers and commentators have pointed out, privileged white males are responsible for a disproportionate number of these. However, when it comes to identifying prospective perpetrators of violent crime, or to assigning the eminently manipulable label of “terrorist” to an individual who announces his intention to murder civilians, officials still seem disinclined to acknowledge this pattern—or even take reasonable steps to address credible threats.

Since 9/11, the U.S. government, in cooperation with its allies, has vastly extended an apparatus of international security and surveillance. Federal officials have wiretapped telephones, tortured captured suspects at offshore penal colonies, carried out systematic assassinations absent due process of law, militarily occupied and destroyed much of Iraq and Afghanistan, invaded privacy and undermined the civil liberties of citizens across the globe through bulk metadata collection programs, and inordinately targeted Muslims and people of colour for interrogation and incarceration. The stated aim of all this conspicuous and heavy-handed statecraft is to safeguard Americans from the machinations of evildoers.

But intrusive “intelligence-gathering” is surely for nought if authorities fail to employ the knowledge at their disposal to thwart violent attacks. And as Glenn Greenwald and other NSA critics have repeatedly emphasized, the mass and indiscriminate collection of data can actually undermine, rather than enhance, efforts to acquire intelligence of malign plots. Just as attempting to study for an exam by highlighting every line in the textbook would be a waste of precious time, energy, and ink, the value to international security of the “collect it all” policies of the NSA and its associates is dubious.

Perhaps, rather than pouring billions of dollars into mass surveillance and drone assassination programs in order to “keep Americans safe” in the abstract, the U.S. government should commit funding and manpower to the task of keeping its citizens safe in reality. One important step in this direction would be to take seriously repeated and apparently sincere threats of mortal violence, whether they emanate from an indigent imam in Yemen, or from a young, affluent white misogynist in California.

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