Call a Terrorist a Terrorist

Over the last two days, FBI agents arrested nine members of a heavily armed religious extremist group. These militants plotted to murder a police officer, and then go on a killing spree at his funeral using assault rifles and improvised explosive devices. They hoped that following this rampage, their actions would set off widespread violence against government targets from other like-minded groups. The members of Hutaree, as the group calls itself, are charged with the attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, teaching the use of explosives, possessing a firearm during a crime of violence, and more. The group’s website promotes their fundamentalist religious world view, and contains embedded YouTube footage depicting the team undergoing tactical maneuvering and automatic weapons training. But according to every mainstream news report I’ve seen, these would-be murders are not terrorists. Their mug shots might give you a hint why. Since they are trailer park white Christians from rural Michigan, when they want to maim and murder for political purposes, they are called radicalized members of the American militia movement.

To understate it a bit, a whole lot changed on September 11, 2001. One such shift is how Americans define terrorism. Prior to 9/11, terrorists were somewhat sexy, stylized in Hollywood as leather clad Uzi toting Eastern Europeans. Watching La Femme Nikita or Die Hard, the scripts expose the existential conflict that led normal people to terrorist acts. They endeared sympathy in that manner, and helped round out otherwise flat plots. As the diminished threat of Soviet war eased into the past, this new brand of terrorist was more often a morally unbound materialist than an ideological psychopath. Not that there weren’t real, very unsexy, terrorists out there. The eighties and nineties saw acts of terrorism by members of many different creeds and backgrounds. Attacks from the IRA, those of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, FARC, the explosion of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, the 93 WTC bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing of 95, bombings by Eric Rudolph, Ted Kaczynski, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 are some that come to mind. Despite the broad variety of attackers and their religious beliefs, all were considered terrorists.

As was so recently put into focus by the polemicists in our society regarding the massacre at Fort Hood, there is quite a lot of debate these days about what constitutes a terrorist action. Terrorism’s modern connotation suggests Islamofascist men with roadside bombs and AK-47s, but its denotation remains the use of fear or violence to coerce a population for political purposes. Clearly that definition captures every attack mentioned above, including the preparations by the Hutaree ilk. So why is no one calling these pathological plotters of mass murder terrorists? It’s not coming from the left or the right, the FBI, or the mainstream media. The only reference to the Hutaree as a terror group came from Michael Lackomar, the leader of a different Michigan militia that previously trained with Hutaree, saying, “They’re more of a private army or a terrorist organization.”

I’m left thinking that if they killed people, there would be more pressure to classify their actions as terrorism. Undoubtedly, were these plotters Muslims and not Christians, terrorist would be the descriptor of choice. Which got me wondering, what other racial stereotypes would be used to reframe the headlines in differing circumstances? What if they were American blacks? Would this just be a gangsta war against the police? If they were Hispanics would we call them narcoterrorists? Why not just terrorists? I keep reading that the Taliban grows most of the world’s opium supply, why aren’t they narcoterrorists too?

Ah, but what’s in a name? One country’s gangsta is another’s insurgent, right? Not in the U. S. of A. Since 9/11 and the subsequent Patriot Act, defining a group as a terrorist organization gives virtual carte blanche for law enforcement efforts directed toward their surveillance, detainment, interrogation, and prosecution. So if we’ve defined a whole set of laws and punishments around terrorist activity, but only prosecute Islamic fundamentalists for terror related offenses, we carry out a grievous injustice. The desire for a non-state actor to commit mass murder to achieve a political aim should carry the same series of penalties, and be prosecuted under the same set of laws, regardless of the perpetrator’s race or religion.

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~ by Wil Finley on March 30, 2010.

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