21 June 2015

Is it the T word?

While there's been quite a lot of air time wasted on Faux News attributing an obviously racially motivated attack to hammer into a narrative about otherwise non-existent violence against Christians in the US, there's a side debate of more interest going on. Whether the killings in Charleston were an act of terrorism. I've noticed several features to this debate

1) People who "refuse to call it terrorism" must be willfully blind/racist, largely because they're liable to identify some similar (or even some ineffectual act) when done by a Muslim, say, as terrorism. I myself am pretty slow to call much of anything "terrorism", when done by any persons of any racial or religious basis, for reasons that I'll examine in a moment. Meanwhile our broader culture, media culture, political culture and largely within mostly white segments of the population, throws this word around frequently to identify actions by groups of people they don't like (while excusing the actions of individuals similar to them as deranged lunatics or bigots rather than part of some common cause event). This dichotomy I find curious in its own way. Clearly I am using a very stringent definition of "terrorism" or others have lost all sensible purpose for the word.

2) There's some interest in identifying the action as racist or a hate crime. Which seems obvious and correct from the motivations expressed publicly by the killer and his victims. This is not necessarily the same thing as "terrorism". But it isn't mutually exclusive with it either.

What I think these two components mean is that after 9-11, our culture tended to take any activity less seriously unless it was in some way broadly related to an action like 9-11. Namely, that it was what we typically associate as "terrorism" (mass targeted killings of civilians for political, religious, or other ideological reasons, designed to inspire fear in a designated group of people, a country, race, religion, political movement, etc). If something could be described as "terrorism", it evoked for many people these images of destroyed skyscrapers and the violent deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. Actions which aren't in this category could nevertheless be associated as more serious concerns for millions of Americans to consider as problems worthy of their time and attention.

Fear is a powerful motivator to get people to go along with whatever you can then claim must be useful for keeping people safe. And so the idea that there must be all kinds of terrorists and terrorism just around the corner from which we must be protected has proliferated. I think this is a lazy and overused political trick. As a result, I am very slow to identify much of any action as the actions of a terrorist, the cause and actions worthy of the political and legal penalties associated with that terminology. I've seen this phrase used to describe: fairly ordinary murders committed at least in part for unsavory reasons (bigotry, religious intolerance), organised campaigns to intimidate people involved in abortion clinics, pretty much any activity by a Muslim, the distribution and production of various narcotics, attempted plots to attack some target of people more or less set up by the FBI (rather than detected and foiled by them), attempted plots not detected by police and FBI which are carried out and kill or injury a large number of people, and so on. And of these, many are attempted, or succeed in publicly tying themselves to: atheists, Muslims, Christians, right-wing political movements, left-wing political movements, libertarians, individualists, mental-illness, weapons that aren't used in the commission of these actions of violence (or commonplace acts of violence like murder or assault).

And this brings me to the social problem with the legal and cultural definitions of terrorism. They're constrained by political considerations or the dominant/prevailing culture of a society rather than some empirical definition of what constitutes an attack which qualifies. They are inherently likely to spawn arguments about what is and what is not an act of terror, or who is and who is not a terrorist, and inherently likely to be wrong about what actions and what types of people end up on either side of those lines. And much of this will ignore what the appropriate responses for a society to take should be because we will be confusing one thing for another, or ignoring causes and agents that can be dealt with separately or distinctly, and so on.

There's a similar debate like this concerning "genocide" in international relations. Actions like the those of the Ottoman government against Armenians or USSR against rather a lot of people rather than a handful as we are discussing now, are often referred to variously as either acts of genocide or not acts of genocide. Rather than talking about what actually happened, who was killed, forcibly moved, or otherwise harmed and attacked by the actions of nation-states and the societies they nominally oversee, there's a lot of argument about whether it qualifies as some arbitrary definition. These are actions involving several hundreds of thousands of deaths at a minimum. In the USSR case, there's probably several million such deaths caused deliberately in the 1930-1950 period alone. These we would think would not lend toward ambiguity in a way that killing a dozen people, or trying to kill a couple of very specific people doesn't obviously seem like it must or must not be an act of "terrorism". And yet much of time when these subjects come up, it's in the context and contest over whether it is or is not some sort of international crime against humanity rather than stacking up what happened, or telling the story of the people(s) who were being slaughtered and annihilated.

When something awful happens, and some number of people are killed or maimed by heinous actions. I'm not very interested in what we call this action. I'm not even that interested in who does it. Because it rarely seems to be a repeatable set of circumstances that led to some violent being acting upon other human beings with malicious intentions toward a dozen or more people in some way that it could be very easily prevented without a lot of taxing effort on social or culture change. But I am interested in who was killed. And maybe why that happened is of notice and attention. Maybe, how they lived might be more interesting though. I wish we would cover this more often. Deaths caused by murder and mayhem are the ending of what are usually interesting lives to the people who loved and knew this person. They're full of mystery, intrigue, achievement, failure, familiar stories to all of us. One of the successful points to the Fruitvale Station film was that it didn't depict Oscar Grant as some sort of angel to be avenged. He was depicted as a human being, a screwed up person just like the rest of us. And his death was both unnecessary and tragic in spite of this supposed flaw of being a kind of problem child, as most of us are wont to do. When we are deprived of this fuller story that someone's life and lived experiences can tell us, that is a story we should seek out. The ending of that story isn't liable to be as interesting without pausing to see what came before it.

I would point out a few things at this point

1) I am quite certain the motivations of the Charleston killings were racial in nature. The attack coming as it does in a church seems quite incidental. If anything, the selection of a church depicts a level of familiarity with the culture the killer sought to attack, but it does not depict some level of hostility with religion.  Black churches were for a long time banned and burned to the ground throughout the antebellum South. This wasn't because racists and white supremacists of that time hated church. Church bombings in the 1960s occurred because that's where the human targets of hatred and oppression bound up in racist motives were most easily found clustered together and thus killed. So it is now.

2) "Guns in church" is a humorous Carlin bit, but it has little to do with the safety of pastors and worshipers. George had two words for you all who think it might: "Disgruntled worshiper". Pissed off and determined people with guns can cause all kinds of problems even if someone manages to shoot them down during or after the fact.

2a) Neither would most of the more popular proposed forms of gun controls be that helpful here. (Some might have helped, but not most).

3) I'm not sure there's anything wrong with referring to something like this, a racially motivated attack killing or attacking a large number of people, as an act of terrorism. Go ahead if it makes you happy. I don't actually disagree on this point. To me, the biggest question mark isn't what we call it. It's how we respond. Given that I feel how we've responded to terrorism is generally awful and horribly unproductive as a society up until now to establish a poor track record, I'd rather we call it something else just to avoid this clumsy overbearing response that isn't likely to produce a fruitful result. Racism for instance. We respond poorly and unproductively to that also, but it is a subject that is apt to produce slightly more thoughtful effort than people running and scurrying around in fear and in this instance, with the motives of the killer exposed for examination and publicly declared, and the actions so horrifying, there will be relatively few people prepared to declare that this was not a racist acting out the hateful and terrible conclusions to their beliefs. People aren't going to be able to successfully argue this comes into some grey territory.

4) South Carolina is liable to pursue (and get) the death penalty, to demonstrate they take the murders of some number of its citizens "very seriously", without reference to "hate crime legislation" or "terrorism" statutes. This is fairly easy to do because ordinary murders don't take the lives of a sitting state Representative or some number of church pastors, or even just a large number of people all at once. In truth, of late South Carolina has actually been a beacon of "racial progress" in so far as it has dealt swiftly and somewhat harshly with police brutality and violence toward its citizens on this basis of race based bias and violence (yes, that South Carolina).

A number of shootings in the state by police have had the officers fired or dismissed from the force, nearly immediately, and charged with various degrees of murder or assault (in the occasion that the unfortunate victims of these shootings did not die of their wounds). This is to be applauded relative to, say, Ohio and its local governance. Which all but ignored the John Crawford killing, which occurred a few miles from my home. And has done little to nothing with Tamir Rice's killer. It sends a pretty powerful symbol to the community that indiscriminate and inappropriate violence by anyone, even those charged with enforcing the law, is not to be tolerated when the state seeks to punish police officers for inappropriate and indiscriminate violence that takes the lives of its citizens, and an equally powerful symbol when that violence by police is ignored or papered over. Racism isn't border limited to former Confederate or slave owning states. It isn't even border limited to "the USA", for that matter.

4a) South Carolina can remind us of that fact in both directions. Take down that fucking flag. You lost the war that you started on extremely morally suspect grounds (to defend the ability to oppress large numbers of human beings by declaring them property, devoid of agency and ability that is not provided for them to do). Stop trying to pretend you're still fighting for this cause. Apparently some number of your citizens are convinced enough to take up arms, and a larger number are convinced enough that they think they're being oppressed. The latter somewhat reasonably.
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