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.