Suppose two men committed separate acts of extremist murder in the United States within a month. Suppose the gunmen attacked a church and a national landmark, motivated by politics and religious prejudice, targeting a nationally controversial figure and innocent civilians. Suppose there was a history of attacks by similarly motivated men in America, ranging from individual shootings and bombings to an act of spectacular violence that destroyed a federal office building.
Suppose two Muslim men had done this.
Is there even a question that we would be using a particular term to describe this behavior? Might reporters and news anchors be terming these horrible acts, say, “terrorism”?
The Webster definition of terrorism is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Now, one could argue that the shooting at the Holocaust Museum and the murder of Dr. George Tiller were not systematic acts. But they were no less systematic than other acts of “disturbed individuals” that are routinely described as terrorism. When some embittered sad sack is convicted for hatching a fanciful, possibly unexecutable, “aspirational rather than operational” plan to knock down the Sears Tower, or buy missiles, or blow up an airport, we go to the term “terrorism” quickly.
One could also argue that these two men, rather than representing a single movement—right-wing terrorism—were two different individuals with different backgrounds, beliefs and motives. Sure. Much like Sunnis as opposed to Shi’ites, Hezbollah as opposed to Al Qaeda, Saddam as opposed to bin Laden.
So if the decision not to call these murders “terrorism” is not a matter of the scale of the acts or of the disparate belief systems of the actors, then what is it? In part, it’s probably a function of the fact that the media follow authority in situations like these; and—as opposed to after 9/11—there is not a dominant authority voice trying to define the violence as domestic terrorism.
Another issue is that it’s easier to see the dominant group in society as being too big, sprawling and differentiated to lump under one term. It’s easy for us to see that lumping the acts of organized white supremacist groups in with the evil fantasies of loners, throwing neo-Nazis and anti-abortion extremists together under one “right-wing terrorist” banner is reductive and useless. There are so many different kinds of white men! How can you possibly throw them under one profile? What good would that do? Whereas it’s easier to make the same kind of reductive mistake with Muslim extremists, American and international, of differing sects, races, nationalities and grievances, many of whom despise each other.
So when white male Christians commit acts like these, it’s not as if they’re coddled. But the language is different. The acts are “hate crimes,” “extremist violence.” Not candy-coated terms, of course, but terms that cast them as individual acts.
Semantics, right? But semantics that matter. When you cast crimes as “terrorism,” suddenly the enemy is not angry individuals. It’s an -ism. It isn’t even human—it’s something pervasive, atmospheric, like a pandemic. And once that rubric is in place, even the smallest, most pathetic, least threatening plots become magnified, elevated, bigger, scarier—more terrorizing. The label becomes self-rationalizing.
Maybe it is in fact tendentious and unhelpful to call the Tiller murder and the Holocaust Museum shooting “terrorism.” Maybe we’re better off choosing our language more precisely and more carefully.
But if no other good comes of this, maybe it can remind us that we should have started doing that a long time ago.