“Terrorism,” double standards, and mainstream media servility

I’d like to call your attention to a Washington Post article I came across on the morning of June 11, 2014, as I believe it reveals much about how governments and mainstream media employ the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” to manipulate our perception of reality. Below I quote liberally from the piece, while providing some of my own commentary.

The article offers an “analysis” of sorts, of how U.S. officials distinguish between “terrorism” and other forms of politically motivated violence. Specifically, the topic under scrutiny is a recent shooting in Nevada by Jerad and Amanda Miller, a pair of far-right extremists calling for the revolutionary overthrow of the U.S. government. (Which sounds suspiciously like a Tea Partisan version of violent jihad, but I digress.)

The reporter interviews a pair of media-literate Muslims—and frankly, if you’re only interested in the unadulterated truth, read their statements, and don’t even bother with the remainder of the piece.

“Without a doubt, if these individuals had been Muslim, it not only would be called ‘terrorism’ but it would have made national and international headlines for weeks,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based group.

Like Hooper, I have no doubt. Recall, for example, the response of mainstream media and government officials to a deadly cleaver attack on a British soldier in London last year. The perpetrators identified as Muslim, and, as in the Miller case, the attack was politically motivated. But media and state officials immediately categorized the cleaver assault as an act of terrorism, with some even citing it as justification for the continuation of the War on Terror and intrusive state surveillance programs.

I don’t know about you, but I can discern few qualitative differences between these two incidents, other than the ethnic and religious identity of the perpetrators, and the weapon of choice.

A few paragraphs later in the Post article, a senior Muslim journalist provides a dollop of honesty that almost seems jarring in this context:

“There’s absolutely a double standard, and it needs to be called out,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, a senior editor of the Islamic Monthly. “Whenever a white person engages in violence they’re considered crazy lunatics, but when a brown Muslim does it, it’s an act of terrorism. Since 9/11, the media is quick to jump on anything an Arab or Muslim does, but it takes a much more deliberative approach when it’s a white person.”


The implications of this double standard on world affairs are profound. Think of the vast security and surveillance apparatus the U.S. and other governments have constructed, purportedly in the name of keeping their citizens safe from the (Islamic) terrorist menace. Think of the hundreds of victims of drone strikes—including 16 in Pakistan this week—whom the CIA has elected to target and kill on suspicion that they were involved in terrorism.

Now think of the more than 70 school shootings—mostly perpetrated by white people—that have occurred since Sandy Hook. Think of Elliot Rodger, whose parents made repeated efforts to warn police about their son’s deranged views well in advance of his rampage. Had Rodger been Muslim, do you suppose authorities might have taken those warnings more seriously?

Later, a “counterterrorism expert” tries—but predictably fails—to rationalize the “terrorism” double standard as it applies in the case of the Millers.

Such labels [terrorist or violent criminal] matter as both a cultural matter and as a matter for law enforcement, said Daniel L. Byman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution. Suspected terrorists or terrorist groups get the attention of federal agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and are prosecuted under national security laws, he pointed out, whereas ordinary criminal suspects are investigated by state and local authorities and tried under local statutes.

If nothing else, this statement offers an interesting bit of insight into the workings of the U.S. government. The implication is that as soon as a high-ranking official yells “terrorist!,” the state’s response to a crisis dramatically intensifies, even if the underlying crisis itself does not.

Byman also supplies the quote with which the article concludes, and unwittingly erodes his own credibility in the process.

“[M]any of the objectives [of right-wing extremist groups] are close enough to legitimate political movements. It would be hard to take them on as a whole without causing a lot of discomfort” among people who don’t have violent aims.

Curiously, this concern over the comfort of people with possible extremist connections hasn’t deterred the U.S. government from disproportionately targeting, surveilling, wire-tapping, detaining, renditioning, waterboarding, night-raiding, and even slaughtering Muslims. Including more than a few who never expressed violent intentions. Including teenager and U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, slain in a CIA drone strike in 2011.

But to go a step further, that “terrorists” are commonly affiliated with “legitimate” political groups should hardly come as a surprise to a counterterrorism scholar. Hezbollah and Hamas, both considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. and several other countries, have electoral arms, and draw their support from grassroots movements. The Irish Republican Army, long considered a terrorist organization, is associated with prominent Irish party Sinn Fein. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress had Umkhonto We Sizwe. The Zapatista rebellion had armed fighters. Hell, many of the American revolutionaries in the 18th century employed tactics that might well be characterized as terrorism today, in order to further the cause of independence from the British Empire.

It is absurd to suggest that the U.S. government consistently goes out of its way to avoid causing discomfort to potentially violent rebel factions based solely on their proximity to legitimate political organizations; even a cursory examination of the real world betrays the falsehood of that assertion. Far more likely, the U.S. government, and the servile media who act as a megaphone for its message, simply hold Muslims/Arabs and white Americans to completely different standards when determining who qualifies for the loaded, emotionally potent moniker of “terrorist.” Far more likely, this double standard exists in order to entrench a perception in the mind of Americans of who the real “enemy” is: a brown-skinned Muslim hiding in the foothills of Yemen or Pakistan, or a black Muslim who kidnaps schoolgirls in Nigeria; rather than a white, domestic gun-toting fanatic, or any of the dozens of school shooters who endanger children in the contiguous U.S. with alarming regularity.

As I noted earlier, if it’s the truth you’re after, the statements of the Muslims quoted in this story tell you all you need to know.