Another day, another massacre…

OK, here we go. Get ready for the tiresome semantic debate about whether the San Bernardino massacre was "terrorism," or not. As if that's the most important question we should be grappling with…. Was this yet another random "mass-shooting" motivated by some personal grudge and rooted in America's homegrown culture of vigilantism and personal revenge? (This kind of thing is so commonplace that the same day's shoot-up in Savannah, Ga., barely made the news because only four people were shot, one fatally, the WaPo says.) Or was it inspired or even directed by an extremist political tendency of one stripe or another? This question is pathologically politicized…

Ashley Feinberg on Gawker immediately jumped on the inevitable double standard. Read her sarcastic headline: "FBI: San Bernardino Shooting Suspects Are Probably Americans, Not 'Terrorists'."  She quotes FBI assistant director David Bowdich, who told the press shortly after the shooting:

I know one of your questions will be, "Is this a terrorist incident?" I will tell you right now, we do not know if this is a terrorist incident. We start from the beginning, working with our local partners. We take the presumption that it may be or it may not be..

But Gawker's commentary is every bit as problematic as the FBI statement it is critiquing. Feinberg writes:

In this case, "we do not know if this is a terrorist incident," actually means, "we do not know if this is related to Islam from overseas." Because by almost any definition of the word, the slaughtering of 14 innocent people is, of course, terrorism.

No it isn't. Feinberg accuses Bowditch of not having read the FBI's terrorism definition, when it is clear that Feinberg did not! Her Gawker piece itself links to the FBI "terrorism" definition. It makes clear that political motive is a sine qua non. So does the State Department definition. So does any sensible definition, if the word is to have any meaning at all.

The San Bernardino massacre comes fast on the heels of the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—which assuredly was terrorism. The right-wing pundits can try to dismiss it as "mental illness" all they want, but the choice of target and the shooter's words betray a clear political motive. A New York Times profile of the shooter notes his "evangelistic" streak and penchant for Internet posts such as "Turn to JESUS or burn in hell." Whether he was a happy, well-adjusted sort or not (as if terrorists are likely to be happy and well-adjusted), this was pretty clearly an act of Christian terrorism

In a mirror image of the right-wing punditocracy, the left-wing commentariat has everything invested in watering down the definition of "terrorism" to the point of meaninglessness. 

So now two suspects are named in the San Bernardino attack: US-born Syed Rizwan Farook and Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik—a married couple who first met on the Internet and met in person when Farook went to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Both were killed by police after the massacre. Farook's surviving brother-in-law spoke at the offices of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) immediately after the news broke, in an effort to head off an Islamophic backlash. While accounts are still very vague, CNN and the LA Tmes report that (unnamed) officials say Farook had been in electronic contact with overseas figures being monitored by the FBI for terrorism connections. And ISIS (not surprisingly) is opportunistically exploiting the massacre (at least), praising the shooters on social media, Vocativ reports. 

But officially, there is still no determination about the motive. So if it turns out it was merely a work-related grudge or something psycho-sexual, the reaction from the "left" will be very interesting. They habitually rush to call such apolitical shoot-ups "terrorism," so that "terrorism" won't be perceived as a Muslim phenomenon. But now they will have to argue that this attack wasn't  terrorism.

And if it turns out to actually have been inspired by ISIS or al-Qaeda or whatever, the right-wing reaction will be equally interesting. They habitually rush to dismiss shoot-ups as apolitical—when they are perpetrated by Angry White Men, even those who are clear Christian zealots. Now they will undoubtedly jump on the very kind of evidence they typically dismiss in such cases. 

It will be a dilemma for both right and left, because they will both be forced to take positions contradictory to their usual ones. You knew this day would arrive, and they should have anticipated this dilemma. But of course they didn't—because they are reacting instead of thinking.

Note the vividly contrasting front covers from New York's twin tabloids. The execrable New York Post shamelessly goes with "MUSLIM KILLERS." The Daily News takes a more progressive and genuinely courageous approach. With a photo of Farook, they write: "HE'S A TERRORIST… (But so are these guys…)" Then follow photos of the shooters in the Colorado Springs, Charleston, Newtown and Aurora massacres. Then comes the zinger: "(AND this guy)"—beside a shot of the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre!

Well, this is ballsy—but not really accurate. The Colorado Springs and Charleston attacks were terrorism. The Newtown and Aurora attacks were not. The fact that stating this obvious fact sounds like an exoneration of the massacres is just evidence of how "terrorism" is now treated as a propaganda word.

The Wikipedia entry for "terrorism" notes that the word is "politically loaded and emotionally charged." To say the least. And when we rush to call (or not call) an attack "terrorism" to serve political aims, we are helping to fuel that tendency.

Contrary to the media-fostered impression, neither convicted Boston bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev nor Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan nor Omar "The Blind Sheikh" Abdel-Rahman were actually charged with "terrorism." They were charged with murder, conspiracy and other crimes prosecutors thought they could more easily convict on. So the online petition calling for the accused Colorado Springs shooter to be charged with "terrorism" smacks a little of using the law to score political points. (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, by the way, was also not actually charged with "terrorism"—and he is widely perceived as having been one, in an exception to the usual double standard.)

"Terrorism" is the last word in the English language that we want to treat as elastic, and subject to the popular but dangerous game of words-mean-whatever-we-say-they-mean. This game ultimately makes all communication impossible. But in the case of the word "terrorism," it is even worse than that. It contributes to the objectification of victims, which is the logic of criminal attacks on civilians.

  1. ISIS link to San Bernardino claimed

    The FBI is now investigating the shooting as "an act of terrorism," the FBI's David Bowdich now says. Wired notes the FBI claim that Tashfeen Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS under a false name on Facebook. (Does ISIS have a Facebook page?) The Daily Mail meanwhile cites unnamed sources who told the LA Times that Syed Rizwan Farook had contact with the Nusra Front and Somalia's Shabaab on Facebook. (Do Nusra Front and Shabaab have Facebook pages?) Disturbingly, Daily Mail also runs a grisly photo apparently posted to Facebook that shows Farook's body lying on the pavement in a pool of blood—handcuffed. If he was killed in combat, how did he end up handcuffed? Was he summarily executed by the police? Or did they cuff him while he was dying?

    We'd like some answers.

    1. Conspiracy vultures descend on San Bernardino (of course)

      Well, it was inevitable. CounterCurrent and other conspiranoid websites are jumping on the word of a witness to the San Bernardino massacre named Sally Abdelmageed, who told CBS News that the attackers were three tall, athletic white guys. We have to give CounterCurrent cred for at least using the singular "eyewitness" rather than arbitrarily making it plural, as many Facebook partisans are doing. They use the scam of posting mutliple media accounts to make it seem like multiple witnesses, but all the accounts go back to Abdelmageed. It is the same claim being recycled over and over. (Are these partisans actually fooling themsleves? Hard to say.) It is, of course, dishonest cherry-picking to highlight the one anomalous account. There are always anomalous accounts like this in any chaotic situaiton. Do these conspiranoid partisans really want us to think that the massacre was carried out by some deep-cover commando force, and that Farook and Malik were arbitrarily framed? Of course, if you actually spell out what the partisans merely hint at (in their cowardly way) it becomes immediately obvious how far-fetched it is…

      1. OK, two witnesses…

        To be fair, they have come up with another—one Juan Hernandez, interviewed by NBC, also says the shooters were "three white men in military fatigues." (Preserved for posterity on In Case You missed It.) Is it possible these witnesses are confusing the shooters with the police who responded?

    2. Did San Bernardino shooter declare loyalty to ISIS on Facebook?

      Um, yes.

      All of a sudden, the conspiranoids and self-appointed media watchdogs (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) are jumping on an apparent statement by the FBI that the accused San Bernardino shooters did not post public Facebook messages declaring their loyalty to ISIS and jihad, but used direct messages with each other. Slate is among those to sneer at other media, including the New York Times, for having reported of the Facebook posts—while using as its own source the Washington Post. But it adds in a final line at the end:

      One earlier report that does seem to be true, per the Post, is that Malik posted a "pledge of allegiance" to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Facebook "shortly after opening fire in San Bernardino."

      Oops. Although, this does raise the question… Would Malik have had time to make a coherent Facebook post amid all the gunfire?

      1. Conspiranoids distort FBI claims on San Bernardino… again

        Conspiranoid sites like Countercurrents are jumping on the latest FBI findings in sensationalist terms: "The FBI is coming clean about the San Bernardino attackers, and it is not making local law enforcement and media very happy. For starters, the FBI head said that the media rumor about the 'terror couple' texting, tweeting or 'Facebooking' support for ISIS or even 'jihad' has absolutely no basis in fact, whatsoever. The Bureau now says there is 'no evidence a married couple who killed 14 people in California this month were part of a terrorist cell,' according to the head of the FBI."

        But if you go to a more legitimate (or "mainstream," to use the favored propaganda word) source, you get a less dramatic story. According to Reuters, "investigators believe the pair were inspired but not directed by Islamic State." 

        So, three points. First, did police ever claim the couple were part of a "cell," as stated by Countercurrents? Second, does it make that much difference, given the franchise model of ISIS and al-Qaeda? And third, authorities are saying that Malika "Facebooked" her support for ISIS after the shooting started (as noted above). Whether this is plausible or not, it is dishonest to just ignore it.