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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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