When Americans think about terrorism, they usually imagine 9/11 and other attacks perpetuated by people who aren’t from this country and who aren’t like us. Groups like Al Qaida and ISIS usually come to mind. Yet, while foreign terrorist attacks like 9/11 are enough to make us frightened and willing to send troops to Afghanistan, there’s a national security threat more pressing that most people don’t pay much attention to. It’s called domestic terrorism which refer to terror acts carried out by US citizens or permanent residents on US soil. Domestic terrorists have committed 80% of attacks since 9/11 and killed more Americans on US soil than their foreign counterparts. Under current US law enforcement, the USA PATRIOT ACT defines acts as domestic terrorism those in which:
- involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
- appear to be intended –
- to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
- to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion;
- to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
- occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
But when it comes to identifying domestic terrorism in contemporary culture, a lot of Americans struggled since the perpetrators may look like them and may share ideas that they kind of agree with. A good case in point is American abolitionist John Brown who’s known for participating in Bleeding Kansas and trying to overthrow the institution of slavery through staging an unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 that killed 7 and injured 10. Brown’s raid on a government arsenal in present day West Virginia clearly fit USA PATRIOT ACT’s definition of domestic terrorism. Brown’s raid involved acts dangerous to human life that violated US and state criminal laws, were clearly intended to intimidate civilians and influence government policy, and definitely occurred on US soil. The fact he believed himself an instrument of God’s wrath in punishing men for the sin of slavery certainly proves that his extremist beliefs had a religious dimension. But since Brown’s motivation behind his attack on Harper’s Ferry was to overthrow the institution of slavery, well, he’s rarely seen as such even by modern day academics. Mostly because Americans agree that slavery was a very terrible sin and the fact it divided the country as well as took 4 year civil war to outlaw it. So in hindsight, Brown’s idea of destroying the institution of slavery through violence isn’t really that crazy (though to a point). And it’s mainly because of Brown’s abolitionist views no matter how extreme they were that he’s often seen as a heroic martyr and visionary to many people. Nevertheless, Brown’s actions prior to the American Civil War and the tactics he chose still make him a very controversial figure today. But Brown’s life and our perception of him illustrate why a lot Americans have difficulty identifying acts of terror by our fellow countrymen in the nation. This is a problem as I explain in this post in FAQ and list format.
If law enforcement has a clear definition on what domestic terrorism is, why is the term used so subjectively as a media and political term?
It’s mainly because when it comes to domestic terrorism, law enforcement and the mainstream media live in two different realities and have very different motivations for identifying what constitutes one. And the latter usually has more influence on the American people. Since American law enforcement’s main priority is ensuring public safety, their criteria for identifying terrorists acts is based on criteria defined in the USA PATRIOT ACT. So when it comes to defining domestic terrorism, all law enforcement care about is whether the act was criminal and endangered human lives, whether it was intended to promote a political agenda through coercion or intimidation, and whether it was committed by someone who lived in the US on US soil. That’s it. By contrast, the media defines domestic terrorism quite differently through the following criteria:
- Perpetrator’s Race and Cultural Identity – If the perpetrator is a Muslim American, their chances of being seen as a domestic terrorist are extremely high regardless of motivation. If it’s a non-Muslim white American with a conventional name, their chances of being seen as a domestic terrorist are usually dependent on other factors. As for the likelihood of non-Muslim blacks and Hispanics perpetrators, it’s very hard to say since both groups are often associated with criminal stereotypes though neither are widely perceived as terrorists.
- Perpetrator’s Motivation– Any American Muslim perpetrator who commits an act of terror in the name of Islam will be automatically be labeled a terrorist in the media as well as linked to foreign Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Qaida or the Islamic State. Black and Hispanic perpetrators will only be identified as such if they’re connected to known terrorist groups or embrace an extremist ideology. But when it comes to non-Muslim white terrorists, it can vary considerably depending on their motivation. White violence against women, racial and religious groups, LGBT people, disabled people, and immigrants will usually be seen as hate crimes at best but not always and not without controversy (if the incident is covered at all). Yet, many hate crimes usually qualify under the USA PATRIOT ACT’s definition of domestic terrorism anyway. Anti-abortion and ecological extremists are less likely to be seen as domestic terrorists since a lot of people hold anti-abortion and environmentalist views. So like John Brown, labeling them as such is controversial though they’ll certainly be seen as nuts regardless political ideology. Then you have the anti-government perpetrators whose acts of terror may cause controversy if ever labeled domestic terrorism. This is especially the case when you’re talking about right-wing extremists or the open carry crowd (though open carry may be legal in some states, carrying a gun in public is an act of intimidation and coercion so it qualifies).
- Nature of the Attack– In the media, the nature of the attack matters considerably such as the method and body count. Perpetrators who stage bombings that kill lots of people will most likely be seen as domestic terrorists. So would any attacks that involve hijacking, bioweapons, mass poisoning, hostage taking, chemical weapons, kidnapping, and property destruction. Shootings may depend on whether the perpetrator is either Muslim or clearly committing a hate crime. At any rate, they have to involve violence and/or fatalities. Despite causing hundreds of millions in property damage and having a sheer volume of crimes, eco-terrorists aren’t really seen as such since a lot of their crimes don’t get people killed. Same goes for left-wing Communist and anarchist terrorists. Merely using guns to intimidate people based on political ideology may not be labeled as domestic terrorism when it clearly is. Cyberterrorism may get some attention even though it’s not considered such while paper terrorism doesn’t get much attention at all.
- Location– Attacks that take place in major cities are more likely to be labeled as domestic terrorism than ones in less urban areas, especially if they take place near places of great significance. In some ways, this makes sense but also ignores a lot of other terror incidents that take place around the country.
If you watch TV news, you might get the impression the media is more likely to label a violent incident as domestic terrorism based on a biased set of criteria which gives Americans the impression that terrorists tend to be Islamic extremists. When in reality, Muslim terrorist attacks aren’t a very big threat to national security, even after 9/11. Why the media decide does this:
- Desire to Avoid Controversy– Domestic terrorism is a loaded word. And while the mainstream media likes sensational news stories, they also take great aims to avoid offending people. This is particularly true when a terror incident involves right-wing extremists since a lot of mainstream media outlets are owned by large corporate conglomerates. Some like Fox News even have a right-wing ideology. That’s not to say leftist terrorists exist since they certainly do since Occupy Wall Street might qualify since they have a long list of property crimes, rampant drug use, rape, murder, and assaults. But when Janet Napolitano brought up the threat of right-wing domestic terrorism in 2009, Republicans were furious.
- Public’s Unwillingness to Identify with Terrorists– Like I said about terrorists, people are more comfortable to label a terrorist act as such if the perpetrator is different from them. And since a lot of people don’t know anyone who’s Muslim, Muslim perpetrators are more likely to be seen as terrorists than their non-Muslim counterparts. But when a terror incident involves white supremacists and other right-wing extremists, a lot of conservative politicians hesitate to declare it as such. Many of them even downplay dangers posed by right-wing extremism altogether. This is especially when Fox News glorifies a Nevada rancher who engaged in an armed standoff against the feds over grazing rights and a bunch of armed men for occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and the fact the current GOP presidential nominee has been endorsed by white supremacists. When it comes to right-wing domestic terrorism, most conservatives are like Draco Malfoy. Sure they may be totally comfortable having racist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, and anti-government views. And yes, they may not be happy with the political and cultural landscape these days as well as nostalgize about a past that never was. But like Draco Malfoy on Muggle-borns, most of these conservatives are neither extreme in their viewpoints nor are willing to resort to violent terrorist acts for them. On the other end, I may believe that this country should do more to protect the environment and stop climate change but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to bomb an animal testing facility because that’s crazy. But when someone commits an act of violence on behalf of their political agenda, it makes a lot of people who may share that perpetrator’s view to some extent very uncomfortable and reluctant to address it as an act of terror. So they don’t.
- Sensationalism– We should understand that sensationalism sells and the media does everything it could to exploit violent terror incidents. The more violent it is and the nuttier the perpetrators seem, the more attention it will get and more ratings the media outlet will have. This is especially be the case if the perpetrator is Muslim.
Unfortunately, the way the news covers domestic terror attacks has very negative repercussions in the country. Now it’s one thing to call a mass shooting in San Bernardino and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando as domestic terrorism. Same goes for the Boston Marathon bombings. But it’s another when both these attacks are seen as acts of domestic terrorism while the mass shootings at Pittsburgh, Tucson, and Charleston are not. Rather as far as the media was concerned, these were attacks made by violently mentally ill white men. Sure it was an accurate assessment, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For one, the man who fired an AK-47 at 5 cops in Pittsburgh was a white supremacist who believed Jews secretly ran everything and that Obama wanted to take away his guns. But as far as the media is concerned, he was just a crazy nutjob who killed 3 cops after his mom called police over a domestic dispute concerning a dog peeing on the carpet. Second, the Tucson shooter who tried to assassinate Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was a conspiracy theorist who believed in a New World Order to brainwash people. Third, the shooter who killed 9 people at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston was a white supremacist who donned a pro-apartheid jacket on his Facebook page, had a Confederate flag license plate, told racist jokes, advocated segregation, and went on a racist rant on how blacks are raping white women and taking over the world. Furthermore, he specifically chose to fire upon blacks at the church due to its long association with civil rights activism. Yet, these terror incidents were reported. Most aren’t covered by major news outlets at all. Negative repercussions of inadequate and sloppy coverage of domestic terrorism include:
- Legitimizes Discrimination– The media’s coverage of Islamic terrorism since 9/11 in the US and abroad has contributed so much to Islamophobia that Muslims in American pop culture have been nastily stereotyped as fanatical Islamic terrorists who hate our country and our western values. Each terror attack since then have been filtered by the media and consumed by the public as wrongdoings of Muslims around the world. Muslims have been further vilified and dehumanized in Hollywood movies like American Sniper. Because of this, American Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians have become acceptable targets for profiling, oppression, and even terrorist attacks. For many Americans, just looking like a Muslim makes them an automatic terror suspect by default as well as someone to be feared. This is a major reason why welcoming Syrian refugees in the US has been so controversial even though it shouldn’t. Around the country, mosques have been fired on, defaced, or burned. Muslims have been shot and killed execution style in their living rooms, fatally stabbed on their way home as well as been beaten in their stores, schools, and on the streets. They’ve also been kicked out of planes, egged outside Walmart, scorched with hot coffee in a park, shot in cabs, and punched while pushing their children in strollers. They’ve had clothes set on fired and their children bullied in school. They’ve been threatened by neighbors who’d burn down their house if they didn’t move away as well as had their cemeteries vandalized and Quran desecrated. They’ve been fired for wearing hijabs and for praying. A Muslim congressman has received death threats. In Irving, Texas, heavily armed right-wing gunmen blocked entrance of a mosque and held banners reading, “we are the solution to Islamic terrorism.” Other armed anti-Islam demonstrations and “Muslim-free” businesses raise deep concerns. Civil and human rights advocates are challenging the use of “domestic terrorism” believing that it’s doled out in a racially-discriminatory manner that merely exacerbates hate they and law enforcement are trying to prevent. Exacerbating hate on a group of people who just happen to have the same religion as terrorists is not a solution to Islamic terrorism and just makes it worse. The fact that 55% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam makes Islamophobia not just the biggest threat to American religious freedom, but also a potential threat to national security since Muslim communities play a crucial role in alerting law enforcement to terrorist threats.
- Does Not Represent Reality– While the American public rightfully sees Islamic terrorists as a threat to safety, the reality of terrorism exists in all forms and that terrorists come from all racial and cultural backgrounds as well as embraced a wide range of extremist political and religious ideologies. For law enforcement officials, the biggest terrorist threats aren’t jihadists. Rather it’s far right wing extremists that have carried out well over half of the deadliest US terrorist attacks since 9/11, committing 93% of all extremist murders in the last 10 years. Most of their extremism is homegrown as well as pose a very real danger to this nation’s character such as pluralism, tolerance, and equality, which form the basis of a liberal democracy. Though jihadist terrorism is often reported on the news, the US has seen very little violent extremism by Muslims. On the other hand, white supremacists are among the most lethal since they’ve committed 83% of all right-wing extremist murders and 77% of all extremist killings in the past decade as well as were involved in 52% of shootings with police. They also regularly engage in various terrorist plots, acts, and conspiracies as well as other traditional forms of crime. Anti-government extremists, right-wing militias, and sovereign citizens are among the most common. But no matter what their ideology, right-wing extremists are also more numerous, cover a larger geographic range, and are more likely to live in your neighborhood. Not representing these groups in the media as the terrorists they are that we should condemn is very irresponsible, even if the station is Fox News.
- Promotes Cultural Profiling– How the media has reported domestic terrorism can also lead to real but ineffective policies that have resulted in cultural profiling, particularly of Muslims and people suspected of being one. Those charged with plotting terrorism for the Islamic State faced more severe charges than militia members, “sovereign citizens,” and other anti-government extremist who’ve been prosecuted for similar activity (even though many more terrorist attacks in the US are carried out by non-Muslims). After 9/11, many American Muslims, South Asians, and those of Middle Eastern descent found themselves being subject to harsher security checks as well as are more likely to be on a no fly list or subject to surveillance. As a result, trust between law enforcement and Muslims has been strained. In recent years, anti-Islam bills became laws in 10 states. Florida and Tennessee passed laws revising the way they approve textbooks for classroom use as a direct result of anti-Islam campaigns. Don’t get me wrong, Islamic terrorists do exist in this country and do pose a threat to national security. But profiling Muslims as suspected terrorists by default is never excusable since the vast majority of them are regular people like us who just want to live their lives in peace and mind their own business.
- Fails to Hold Public Figures Accountable for Their Rhetoric– The media is a huge influence in the American public but we should be aware what many public figures may say could be taken out of context by some nutjob who’d use it in a terror attack. It’s been widely suggested that political rhetoric may play a role in fueling hate crimes, especially since Donald Trump started running for president as well as said very hateful things about almost every demographic imaginable. But since he started running and calling on Muslim bans, anti-Muslim hate crimes dramatically increased to its highest levels since the aftermath of 9/11. It doesn’t help that Trump has been endorsed by white supremacist organizations whom he’s consistently failed to denounce. A lot of what’s said on Fox News has probably led to a lot of terror attacks and it doesn’t help that they have glorified anti-government terrorists like Cliven Bundy as heroes as well as inspired many nutcases to do horrible things that have killed people. Not to mention, a lot of conservative special interest groups have said similar things as well as many Republican politicians. I know there are liberal groups and Democrats who might inspire some degree of terror violence. But I single out conservatives since right-wing terrorism has become much more of a problem in recent years, according to terror experts and government organizations.And yes a lot of these radical right-wing extremists consume conservative media outlets like Fox News.
- Ignores Very Real Threats– While Muslim terrorism in the news stirs fear and hatred for even the most ordinary Muslim Americans, the far more serious threat of the radical right has received relatively little attention. But bring that fact up in front of Republican politicians, expect outrage and even offense as an attack to demonize the right. The media seems to be just as deft to these threats, especially if it’s Fox News. Such response leads to downplay to take such threats as seriously as they should be by the public. Radical Right-Wing terrorists present a more deadly threat given their affinity for hoarding weapons and explosives. Not paying attention to these terrorists has consequences such as emboldening these people to carry out mass casualty attacks. Americans are much more likely to live near a white supremacist or anti-government sovereign citizen than a jihadist (A nearby town in my area had its own Klu Klux Klan chapter). When we’re talking about racial and religious minorities, living near a radical right-wing terrorist can put them in very real danger.
- Compromises Public Safety for Vulnerable Populations– Whenever domestic terror incidents aren’t reported and treated as the heinous acts they are, people are left very vulnerable to attacks. This was very apparent in the South during segregation when countless African Americans were subject to lynchings as a way to control black communities and retain white supremacy. During the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans and other activists were frequent targets of white supremacist violence. Though white supremacy is no longer as acceptable as it was, the hateful ideology and violence hasn’t gone away. Recent incidents including a white supremacist firing on Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis, a NAACP building bombing in Colorado, and a black church shooting in Charleston. In every terror attack involving Muslims since 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims in America have become alarmingly high. A study from Georgetown University has reported 174 incidents of anti-Muslim violence from 2015 consisting of 12 murders, 29 physical assaults, 50 threats against people and institutions, 54 acts of vandalism, 8 arsons, and 9 shootings or bombings. Contrary to what the media might say, Muslims are far more likely to become terror victims than terror perpetrators. However, Muslims and blacks aren’t the only group in the country vulnerable to domestic terrorism in the nation even by white supremacists. White supremacist groups also target immigrants, minorities, Jews, LGBT people, and sometimes Christians. Targets for anti-government and sovereign citizens are law enforcement and other authority figures. Still, not recognizing clearly politically motivated attacks by non-Muslim perpetrators leaves many Americans especially vulnerable.
As you can see the state of how the news media depicts domestic terrorism is appalling. Excessive coverage of one group of terrorists has led to disproportionate fear, suspicion, and unjust discrimination against a religious minority and other others. But significant less attention of a far more serious homegrown terrorist threat has gone under the media radar and has neither been sufficiently challenged by our political culture nor law enforcement. Not only this disproportionate rate of media coverage lead to increased profiling and discrimination, it also makes the US less safe as a whole. Furthermore, it makes public figures less likely to take responsibility for their rhetoric that could inspire many of these nutjobs to commit heinous acts. Now while the government may be slow to act on domestic terrorism, the media doesn’t have to. In fact, if the media just got it together and report domestic terrorist attacks in a way they should, then it might actually encourage leaders to come up with policies combating it. After all, people didn’t take lynchings as serious acts of terrorism meant to intimidate black people during segregation in the South until Ida B. Wells investigated them in the 1890s and began an anti-lynching campaign to spread awareness about the atrocity. Today she is turning in her grave. If the news media should cover domestic terrorism correctly, then it must be depicted in a way that’s represents the reality. By that I mean showing that domestic terrorism can take many forms, be motivated by different ideologies, and committed by people of many different backgrounds. And that all these domestic terrorists should be treated as a national security threat to be taken seriously.