Treating El Paso shooting as terrorism means more than just lip service

There is a strange ritual that occurs after recent mass shootings, particularly those that appear inspired by far-right white nationalist hatred.

August 4, 2019 14:24
Treating El Paso shooting as terrorism means more than just lip service

Ysleta Del Sur church, La Mision de Corpus Christi de San Antonio de la Ysleta del Sur. Historic Rio Grande community just south of El Paso. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of the El Paso shooting there is a growing consensus in the US to view it as white nationalist terrorism. This is primarily about paying lip service to condemning white supremacism, without actually wanting to put into action the responses one would need to confront this kind of terror systematically.

That would require the kind of intelligence gathering and counter-terror strategies used against home-grown ISIS networks, and comes with the ramifications of addressing “root causes.”

Is American society ready for that, or do people merely prefer talking points and momentary outrage, followed by return to routine?

There is a strange ritual that occurs after recent mass shootings, particularly those that appear inspired by far-right white nationalist hatred. First we are told to ignore the perpetrator’s manifesto, whether the one from the New Zealand attack, or the Poway synagogue attack. In the New Zealand case, officials actively worked to prevent anyone from seeing it, as if by simply not seeing hateful words, then the hatred behind them will go away.

Next, we are treated to a kind of charade in which large numbers of commentators speak about how “white nationalists” are a terrorist threat, but then mock the media and politicians by claiming, without any evidence, that the attack will be labelled a “mental health issue” and not called terrorism.

It’s almost like we need the straw man fiction that it is not terrorism, in order to bash politicians for not calling it terrorism, even when they do. For instance a quick selection of popular tweets after the El Paso attack includes comments such as “you could not want to hear this but white supremacist terrorism has to be named.” Or people post memes that claim that if the terrorist is Muslim then it is called terrorism, but if the perpetrator is white then society ignores it. Yet at the same time we are told, again and again, “the number one terrorist threat in America remains white supremacist males.” Well, which is it, is it not being named or is it?

Lois Beckett at The Guardian points out that the El Paso attack is the third mass shooting announced in advance on social networks. Pete Buttigieg, who is running for President, said “America is under attack from homegrown white nationalist terrorism.”

Scholar Hussein Ibish however argues that “this won’t be treated as a domestic terrorism case, it will be all about mental illness.” Author Steve Silberman claims that. Since the shooter is white, “media will report that he is quiet and police lone wolf.”

Most everyone agrees: This is white nationalist terrorism. And many seem to agree that it won’t be labelled as such, even when it is labelled that way by media and leading politicians. This leaves us in a conundrum. If most people seem to think that we need to view these attacks as terrorism, then that should have the ramification of empowering law enforcement to investigate these attacks as terrorism and to start treating them the way we do ISIS or other groups. Or do we just want to say “terrorism” and then not do anything?

The problem is that the US has a problematic track record on confronting terrorism. Washington and voices in the US have tended to try to downplay ISIS and Islamist extremist attacks as well, whether the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, 2015 San Bernardino attack, the 2009 Fort Hood massacre or 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Fort Hood was infamously described as “workplace violence” when it was inspired by Islamist hatred and Al-Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki.

A Boston bomber perpetrator got a glowing cover of Rolling Stone, and transcripts of the Orlando attack purposely removed declaration of allegiance to ISIS. The Obama administration purposely used the term “violent extremism” regarding these kinds of incidents, not referencing the religious far-right motivations. This was on purpose not to offend or link these attacks with Islamist far-right ideologies. By this logic one would call El Paso “violent extremism” and not reference “white” for fear of offending other white people.

This means we face an uphill struggle in trying to confront mass shootings as terrorism in the US. First there is the problem of using the tools available to confront these networks of hate online that help to spread, inspire and give platforms to the perpetrators. These attackers are self-radicalized but they must leave crumbs along the way leading up to their attack. However we also know that some attacks have unclear motives and apparently don’t have warning signs, such as the Las Vegas or Gilroy shootings. So that means we need more serious study of how to prevent the attacks.

Next we need to confront the problem that has stalked the US in terms of confronting terrorism, which is that we have often re-defined terrorism as “violent extremism” to downplay it. This is a problem of definitions and terminology. We are more comfortable condemning white supremacism than Islamist supremacism, precisely because it’s easier to post about how bad white nationalism is, than to appear to condemn far-right religious violence by religious minorities, for fear of spreading anti-Muslim conspiracies, or “Islamophobia.”

The challenge is also that we tend to see white supremacist terror and Islamist terror as mutually exclusive. For instance one index of mass shootings worldwide doesn’t include shootings by Boko Haram, ISIS or others, as if somehow only when mass shootings are done by “white men” are they “mass shootings.”

Second, we create an arbitrary divide between “far right” or “white male” attacks and “terrorism” or “Islamist terrorism,” as if the Boston bombers were not both white and also Islamist extremists. Many members of ISIS, for instance, are “white males” and they are also terrorists and extremists. These are not mutually exclusive categories and creating a false narrative of “white terror” and “Islamic terror” does a disservice to confronting extremist aspects of both. But just calling it all “extremism” doesn’t help either, because one has to separate out specific aspects of hate ideology to track the crumbs that lead to violence.

After El Paso we face another debate about the nature of terror. If America wants to start fighting this terror as terrorism, then it will need to reconsider methods and terminology.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman

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