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Why white terrorism isn’t terrorism

Terrorism by white people isn’t framed as terrorism because it undermines the real benefits of the War on Terror for western governments.

What is terrorism?

It’s not an idle question. Since 9/11, Australia more than any other country has compiled voluminous laws designed to combat it, many of which remove basic rights long taken for granted. And in the name of fighting terrorism, we have established, as a cog in the intelligence machinery of the United States, a surveillance state in which telephone and internet communications are monitored, stored, analysed by governments without our consent, and up until recently, without our knowledge.

So what is the underlying concept? Not in the rhetorical sense — Alan Jones once claimed that boycott campaigns aimed at his advertisers were terrorism — but in the legal and policy sense. In the US and the United Kingdom, the definition of terrorism has proven flexible indeed. Protests by pacifists and people complaining about water quality have been labelled “terrorism” in the US; groups targeted by the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence “fusion centres” include Ron Paul supporters, the Occupy movement, the ACLU, pro- and anti-abortion activists and gun ownership advocates. In the UK, in attempting to justify the detention of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, the government argued in court that simply publishing documents that might influence a government was “terrorism”, regardless of motive. “Terrorism is terrorism”, its lawyers argued — meaning, of course, terrorism was anything they said it was.

But while the definition of terrorism appears to remorselessly expand, in one area it appears to be shrinking — political violence by white males. White males who engage in mass shootings in the United States appear to get a pass on the whole “terrorism” thing. This isn’t the result of their choice of weapons. The 2009 Fort Hood shootings by Nidal Malik Hasan were immediately labelled terrorism by the media, Obama administration officials and congressional figures, although the incident, which cost 13 lives, is now seen as “workplace violence”. But the word “terrorism” has been almost entirely absent from any coverage or responses to the killings of three people, including two police officers, in Las Vegas, by two white supremacists, Jerad Miller and his wife Amanda (whom it is claimed had been “brainwashed” by her husband), on the weekend. The Millers draped Revolutionary War flags and swastikas on the bodies of their victims, and left a trail of social media messages indicating their preparations for a “war” for liberty.

But the Millers’ terrorism — Amanda shot her husband and then herself rather than be caught — has been framed as just another gun massacre in a land where such events are routine, despite their explicit political ideology. Fox News, which would have given wall to wall coverage of the shootings if the perpetrators had been Muslim or African-American, virtually ignored them, given the Millers’ ideological links and connections with the Right and once-favoured, now inconvenient figures like Cliven Bundy. But singling out Fox News misses the point: the Millers don’t fit the War on Terror narrative that western governments and the western media promulgate — indeed, they pose a threat to it.

The War on Terror narrative is of an insidious offshore Other, Islamic fundamentalism, and its almost magical capacity to radicalise western Muslims, either through luring them into overseas conflicts (e.g. Syria, where it’s fine for the West to arm anti-Assad forces but bad if people from the West go to join the fight), brainwashing them in local mosques or simply through “unfettered ideas” available on the internet. To adequately combat the threat requires huge expenditure on weapons and defensive measures, restrictions on basic legal rights that could be exploited by “terrorists” and mass surveillance of the entire population.

Sometimes the narrative needs propping up. A critical component of the War on Terror is the need to continue to generate potential terrorists to justify continuing its associated measures. The Iraq War, by the agreement of British, American and Australian intelligence and law enforcement agencies, made us significantly less safe from terrorism (in exactly the manner predicted by Osama Bin Laden before 9/11). Drone strikes, according to the former US commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal, so outrage target communities that they potentially undermine any security benefits they generate. And the FBI now has an extensive history of using informants and agents provocateurs to entrap mentally ill, drug-addicted or homeless American males in often absurdly elaborate “terrorist” plots.

Neo-Nazi terrorism like that of the Millers undermines this narrative. Not merely is it homegrown and white, but it is in plain view. No elaborate backdoor NSA surveillance of the internet was needed to identify the Millers as would-be terrorists planning mass murder — it was all in public view on Facebook. Like 9/11 and the Boston bombings, it demonstrates the persistent theme of attacks on US soil — that the problem is never a dearth of information for security agencies, that could be remedied by transforming the entire electronic communications system into a vast panopticon, but a failure to act on information already available.

To acknowledge that would be to undermine the case for mass surveillance, and mass surveillance is increasingly valuable as a tool of economic and commercial espionage. In Canada, Tony Abbott was full of praise for mass surveillance, saying:

The important thing is not to be deterred from doing what is necessary to protect our citizens, our interests and our values and what is sometimes forgotten about the work of the Five Eyes is that it’s not just for the benefit of those five countries, but it is ultimately for the benefit of the wider world. Let’s not forget how much of the heavy lifting against international terror has been done by America and its Five Eyes allies.”

Perhaps Abbott was referring to the Iraq war here, despite it being a multi-trillion dollar exercise in making us officially less safe from terrorism. But the benefit of mass surveillance systems is primarily as economic espionage tools, with the benefits flowing, mainly, to US firms. That is why a long list of commercial targets of the NSA have been revealed via Edward Snowden, and why the governments of supposed allies of the Five Eyes powers, like Germany and Indonesia, have been so relentlessly targeted — unless our spies have reason to believe Chancellor Merkel or President Yudhoyono or the East Timorese cabinet are secretly al Qaeda agents, or terrorists lurk among Indonesian trade officials or in the offices of Brazil’s Petrobras resources company.

Ignoring white terrorism thus isn’t an ideological oversight by the Right, or carelessness by the media, it’s a critical component of the War on Terror, which ultimately has little to do with stopping terrorists. Indeed, it would be a black day for Anglophone governments if victory should ever be declared in that conflict.

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  • 1
    Justin Mackenzie
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    … whom it is claimed had been “brainwashed” by her husband…

    Should read: “who it is claimed had been brainwashed by her husband” as the sentence “it is claimed” is parenthetical and “who” is the subject of a subordinate clause. Hence, “who, it is claimed, had been brainwashed by her husband”…

  • 2
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Mr & Mrs Pooter will always submit to being protected from the Other, until the day they meet the enemy, like Pogo.

  • 3
    Dez Paul
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I’d be very wary of anything Abbott praises. Terrorism is as terrorism does. Superficialites like race, religion, culture are distractions used by the unprincipled. Bin Laden was no more a true Muslim than Abbott is a true Catholic. Bush, Obama, Howard, Blair, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott are all pathetically shameless on this front. They have undermined national security in the name of national security, arguably willfully so.

    An interesting aside - it took one Blair (Eric) to prophesise this state of affairs, and it took another Blair (Tony) to commission it. Maybe Eric foresaw this as well, leading him to change his name…

  • 4
    Gail
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    The IRA were the “terrorists” in the UK for 30 years from 1969. A period now referred to as “The Troubles”. Brief summary on Wikipedia

    It tied up the British Army in Belfast for a very long time.

    However, all involved were white and christian so it seems to have been forgotten that people were being murdered and bombings were not unusual. They were terrorists then, what would they be now?

  • 5
    gerry meehan
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    funny how after 9/11 the ira suddenly made peace all of a sudden. boston supporters got pressured as it was hard to be anti terrorist when the usa was supporting white terrorists in ireland.

  • 6
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The early Italian militant Errico Malatesta called terrorism “propaganda of the deed”.

    For an act of violence or disruption to be described as terrorism, the people committing it must believe (rightly or wrongly) that their actions will influence the way a society or a government will behave.

    A lot of the mass killings are carried out by mentally disturbed people without any political manifesto underpinning their actions, so they aren’t committing terrorism, although they are still deadly.

    The Unabomber and Anders Breivik however are terrorists, as in their minds at least, they were trying to force their respective governments to change policy.

    In the same way the Millers are terrorists as their neo-nazism was their motivation.

    As Bernard correctly points out reserving the term “terrorism” solely for acts committed by Islamic Fundamentalists is cynically narrowing the definition in order to justify the “War on Terror” in or at Muslim countries.

  • 7
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Berbard the problem with asking questions like “why white terrorism isn’t terrorism” is readers tend to assume you have something definitive to say on the subject. Unfortunately none of your observations are particularly new or insightful. For example the MSM narrative around Breivik was and remains remarkable for its avoidance of the term terrorism yet in deed his actions were typical of any so-called terrorist.

  • 8
    mikeb
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    @diddywrote. Agree with most of what you write although I would class lone wolves as delusional rather than true terrorists. But then I’m no expert.
    @Gail. The IRA would no doube be classed as terrorists if time-shifted from those times to the present. Their supporters would obviously class them as “freedom fighters” however.

  • 9
    Ken Dally
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the largest, best funded and most active terrorist organisation operating against the USA. Its activities lead to more deaths of American citizens per year than all other terrorist organisations in the world combined.

  • 10
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    @mikeb. My attempt at a definition is probably a bit too broad so it does become a grey area when discussing individuals.

    Did their ideology make them commit these acts or did they create an ideology in order to excuse their insane actions?

    It’s difficult as a number of “terrorist” groups often only had a very small number of members with a charismatic leader (who may or may not have been nuts). The seventies in particular were fertile time for such groups, the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction, the Japanese Red Army, the Weathermen for instance.

    I would even be tempted to label the Manson Family as a terrorist organisation as Charlie hoped that their notorious murders would be the catalyst for a racial war. It’s barking mad but its coherent.

  • 11
    Scott
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I think terrorism has to be a crime committed by an organisation and part of a larger political campaign. But that is just an opinion.
    In reality, terrorism is just a criminal code definition and in this case, there doesn’t really need to be a label for it as the perpetrators are dead.
    If a organisation claimed credit for it in the future, then it would definitely be upgraded to terrorism, so as to enable investigators to continue to go after the group members who may have played a role in the attack.
    However as the Millers seem to be acting on their own, and as it seems pretty random and opportunistic, and there is no one else claiming credit, I doubt the authorities will be labelling it as a terrorist attack.
    Besides, why give the Miller’s message a higher profile? Treat them like the common murderers they are.

  • 12
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    It is all reminiscent of the Israelis. If an Israeli youth is caught blowing up the neighbouring deli he or she has a minor mental disorder. Whereas a Palestinian youth doing the same thing, is a terrorist.

  • 13
    Hunt Ian
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Terrorists are people who kill to make some target group afraid and to urge like minded people to engage in terror too. The neo-Nazi’s, Ku Klux Klan et al are clearly terrorists, and many of these are emerging in Europe today. Al Qaida and its followers are clearly terrorists.
    The practice of identifying as terrorists only Islamic fundamentalists, who are also quite likely not authentic followers of Islam, has only one thing to be said in its favour. Al Qaida and its followers are the closest in their savage , complete disregard of the rights of outsiders to the Nazis, though they do not have a powerful military machine so they can kill millions.
    But this is no real excuse for failing to identify other terrorists for what they are. This does not mean we should label everyone who is tied up with or promotes killing terrorists. I would not call the NRA terrorists, despite their complicity in so many mass killings. They come close, since they clearly want to terrorise criminals, as do many US states, with their executions and mass imprisonment. But their primary aim is defence of the gun toters and the decent citizens of the US - the top 20%.

  • 14
    The Hood
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    I assumed this article would be about the US drone strikes on anyone, anywhere they deem to be a threat to them somehow, in some oblique way. Isn’t killing people in an undeclared war, terrorism by some other name?

  • 15
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Because the white ones are harder to spot?

  • 16
    claudedwalker
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Bernard, I’m a fan of your writing but I found this throwaway line confusing?

    e.g. Syria, where it’s fine for the West to arm anti-Assad forces but bad if people from the West go to join the fight”

    Are you trying to say that is hypocrisy? Are you saying we shouldn’t arm the opposition? Or are you saying that we should allow Australians to fight there?

    If the latter you should come out and say it. Also, if you are arguing it should be ok for Australians to go and fight a war in Syria, learn radical hate ideology and bomb-making, and fighting skills and then come back to Australia, well, that is reckless in the extreme.

  • 17
    oldskool
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Claudedwalker-
    So you are saying that it is alright to provide weapons to people who will; “…learn radical hate ideology and bomb-making, and fighting skills…” And if they lose are likely to try to get to Australia, etc.
    That sounds reckless in the extreme.

  • 18
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece Bernard K……anything resembling this piece would not be seen in the Aussie MSM these days that’s for sure, as Fairfax, the ABC & News Limited have become by & large State sponsored media.

  • 19
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 12 June 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Hunt Ian:

    Al Qaida are freedom fighters who are legitimately fighting to clear the invaders from their homelands…what part of that equation don’t you understand? …Bin Laden could not have been clearer in his explanation of this point.

    As for Al Qaida being compared to the Nazi savagery, the evidence that the most destructive terrorist organisation is the USA, is overwhelming. Check out the website of Aussie academic Dr Gideon Polya for the numbers of innocent civilians murdered by the Great Satan & its allies since 1960…….the 3 million Vietnamese civilians they murdered is only the start of their murderous rampage.

    You’ve been brainwashed.

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