Two weeks ago, Paris was rocked with a number of coordinated terrorist attacks by ISIS fighters. Two days ago, a “lone wolf” engaged in a prolonged shootout with police in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While the former has been roundly condemned by almost all Americans as nihilistic barbarians, regardless of their political orientation, the latter is seen very differently, depending on how you feel about abortion.Some on the right like Carly Fiorina have been “Not All Pro-Lifers” while others like Donald Trump have simply dismissed the shooter as some random maniac who in no way represents mainstream conservative opinion on anything:
The Friendly Atheist has compiled a bunch of tweets from users celebrating the shootings:
Clearly, terrorism isn’t terrorism when it’s being used by a cause one approves of.
Before I go on, I should clarify what I mean by “terrorism,” which is a term that is very much overused in post-9/11 discourse. The generally accepted definition of terrorism by political scientists is the use of violence by non-state actors to achieve a political goal. If we use this definition as our starting point, then the Planned Parenthood shooter was most definitely a terrorist, as were the ISIS fighters in Paris. The Planned Parenthood shooter was acting alone and using extreme violence to bring the work of the clinic to a standstill. While it’s debatable as to the extent ISIS-controlled territory is a coherent state, ISIS isn’t issuing passports or citizenship in the conventional sense, meaning that the perpetrators were still acting as non-state actors, rather than as the authorized agents of a foreign power.
As scary as ISIS is, the kind of spectacular and theatrical terrorist attacks associated with it and Al-Qaeda are relatively rare. No one has yet tried to top 9/11, perhaps because doing so would be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking (9/11 took about six years to plan and cost around $400,000 to $500,000 to execute). While Al-Qaeda was mostly about attacking the West and its allies on its own turf, ISIS is more concerned about building the Islamic state that Osama bin Laden assumed would never be an an actuality any time soon. The extent to which ISIS is interested in attacking the West is related to its desire to unite all Muslims in a Caliphate, something that can’t occur if they’re being attacked by Western aerial forces all the time. If you want to know the difference between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, this article from The National Review, a conservative foreign policy publication, is a good starting point:
It’s easy to condemn ISIS because it’s foreign, Muslim, and associated with brown people, but when the causes are closer to home and the perpetrators white, the urge to condemn is more muted. When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred back in 1995, everyone thought it was an act committed by a Muslim terrorist. This wasn’t a completely irrational guess, since the World Trade Center had been bombed two years earlier, but Al-Qaeda would never lower itself to bomb a building in a relatively obscure middle American city, when they could go big in New York or Washington. The real perpetrator was Timothy McVeigh, a disaffected white Gulf War veteran and anti-government activist. While the militia movement lost its momentum after the Oklahoma City bombing, presumably from the “weekend warrior” types not wanting to be associated with a guy who killed children and showed no remorse about it, as far as I know, there has never been a serious attempt to try and root out domestic right-wing extremism in the same way that the left was targeted in COINTELPRO or with Islamic extremism today.
Consider the 1996 Olympic Park bombing, another infamous example of right-wing terrorism:
The perpetrator in this case was Eric Robert Rudolph, who like McVeigh, had ties to the militia movement and the Christian Identity movement. Unlike McVeigh, however, Rudolph was also an extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBT activist, and also bombed a Birmingham abortion clinic and a lesbian bar in Atlanta. When Rudolph went on the run in Appalachia, it is suspected that local people sympathetic to his cause helped him elude the authorities. Should we even wonder why ISIS has supporters in European Muslim communities when right-wing white Christians do the exact same thing with their purveyors of non-state violence? However, it is practically taboo to suggest that right-wing whites commit terrorism.
As I mentioned some weeks ago, the Klan was very much a mainstream organization in American life until the late 1960s, despite being open about its terrorist aims. In fact, the first iteration of the Klan that existed during Reconstruction is probably the archetype of the successful terrorist organization, in that it was able to accomplish almost all of its political goals: the removal of Union troops from the South, the unwillingness of the federal government to take black civil rights seriously, the mass disenfranchisement of supposedly free blacks, the creation of new forms of enslavement for blacks, and the tacit promise that the rest of the United States would back up the legitimacy of the white supremacist Jim Crow regime.Right-wing terrorism has always been the bigger threat to American security, both before and after 9/11, precisely because the will to root it out simply isn’t there like it is with the specter of Islamic terrorism. It’s easy to condemn terrorism when it’s being committed by dark-skinned others, but rather more difficult when it’s being done by the white boy next door.