In the aftermath of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting, one thing absent from the media was any mention of 57-year-old shooter Robert Dear being labeled a terrorist. Same goes for the Charleston Church shooting. This is in stark contrast to the Paris shootings, in which, before any information whatsoever was available, media (and social media) streams were preemptively deluged with the term.
America has long suffered from fear of the "other," even though, as explained in this insightful piece on the supposed "happy native" origins of Thanksgiving, Europeans were quite the terrorists:
This is not revisionist history. ... This is history that’s just been overlooked because people have become very, very comfortable with the story of happy Pilgrims and friendly Indians. They’re very content with that — even to the point where no one really questioned how is it that Squanto knew how to speak perfect English when they came.
We don’t have to look back centuries to discover examples. Contemplating the current Syrian refugee crisis and America’s role in accepting any, I’ve seen more than a few people conjure Japanese internment camps. That horrific chapter in our history was part of a larger wave that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Slowly our government closed our doors in fear of anything dangerous entering.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was overturned in 1943, but it took until 1965 to lift restrictions on the rest of Asia with the Immigration and Nationality Act. Pressure from human rights groups forced the government to overturn long-standing prejudices — decisions that could potentially be overturned yet again if a Republican were to win the presidency next year.
But our prejudices are not necessarily wiped clean through legislation; in fact, sometimes those fires are stoked when politicians enact anything progressive. Still, this feels like a fringe, although one with a voice, as much of the current hard right (and, in universities, hard left) banter proves. On one side, we’d return to excluding all immigrants; on the other, the mere mention of anything not politically perfect is assaulted in the most ironic free speech attack of our era.
Thus our current target: Islam. There is warrant for this. The more liberal of liberals are agitated when Sam Harris and Bill Maher recommend taking a serious look at what the religion is preaching while championing well-meaning, although shortsighted apologists like Reza Aslan. Nuance abounds on both sides. A predominant number of Muslims are not to blame, although that does not give the religion a free pass from criticism.
Likewise, neither does Christianity. This seems to be something not even forgotten, but never even entertained. The Bible is a murderous, vengeful book fueled by an impenetrable deity. Unlike the gods of Greece and India with their all-too-human characteristics, relationships, and follies, this God admits so little of himself and lays on so much criticism of humans it’s hard to imagine developing any sort of camaraderie with him. The biblical God is a lonely, self-ostracized crank. Perhaps our tribal inclinations should not surprise given this.
We separate through language. Killing for Allah will immediately (and rightly) award you the term terrorist. Killing for God — which, honestly, is the harbinger to Islam’s invisible friend — credits you with crazy, lonely, depressed, neurological; just never the "T" word. Take religion out of the picture: Killing for an idea is, at root, an act of terror. Killing for the sake of it, rare although possible, is also terrorism. You’ve committed an act of terror on others.
As long as our media refuses to label homegrown terrorism what it is, our language gulf remains wide. This functions to not let us see the "other" in ourselves. Thus we debate the shooter's psychological problems and whatever prescriptions he was taking, which has the added inevitable benefit of distracting us from actual gun legislation. Loopholes would have to immediately be addressed if we started labeling Americans terrorists, as would investigating our sordid centuries-old history of excluding anyone not "us."
None of that changes the fact that these are terrorists in our midst. I’m much more likely to die from the idiot on the road who feels that texting while driving is acceptable than from a dirty bomb, but that story is not sexy or fear-inducing. Perhaps it will take, as actor Wendell Pierce recently mentioned on Twitter, a different perspective on how we go about business as usual in America:
If every Black male 18-35 applied for a conceal & carry permit, and then joined NRA in one day; there would be gun control laws in a second.
Whatever Dear and Dylann Roof's motives, they committed acts of terrorism. Killing for nationalism or religious beliefs is to terrorize those who you harm. Calling it by any other name is ludicrous. If we refuse to acknowledge the other in ourselves, we’ll always be scared at the slightest glimpse of our shadow.
Image: PYMCA / Getty