The Demonization of ‘Terrorism’

CNN Boston Marathon
Co-authored by Cyrus McGoldrick

The recent explosions at the Boston Marathon and subsequent media coverage exposed yet again a dangerous trend in U.S. culture: rushing to judgment in labeling and prosecuting crimes, and throwing away long-held U.S. American ideals and legal principles of due process.

Terrorism — a form of communication and a military tactic, not an ideology — is the systematic use of violence against civilians to intimidate them for a political purpose. Too many media outlets, elected officials and community leaders have prematurely labeled the Boston Marathon bombing an act of terrorism. Some people were upset President Obama did not label the acts “terrorism” in his address just hours after the explosions.

Not all murders are terrorism — “terrorism” implies a political or ideological intention, and the “causing of terror” is not enough to merit that label. A shooting in a movie theater that does not have an agenda cannot safely be labeled “terrorism,” even though it caused tremendous terror and continues to do so. Additionally, not all acts of political violence are terrorism — the military is distinguished from civilians, and so an attack on an army base is not “terrorism,” even though the attack might have had a political agenda.

Related: When Christians Speak of Violence in Islam – by Dan Martin

This distinction is more than semantics, though. The demonization of “terrorism” — the definition of which often expands to include almost all violence by oppressed people, whether international or domestic — above other violent crimes, especially in recent years, served to demonize violence originating from ideologies and movements that oppose U.S. hegemony. It also brought with it a frightening era of laws that violate not just our understanding of human rights but also the civil rights clearly defined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. These laws and legal precedents have “legalized” and justified mass surveillance, indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, summary execution by executive order, torture, and more.

There is also a clear double standard: the process of making the suspect into the “other,” something foreign. White men (and violent criminals do seem to mostly be men) are usually given the benefit of the doubt, and humanized through analysis of their life and family histories, mental illnesses, and social environments. Their violence and rampant murder of civilians is not assumed to be terrorism (except in the case of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who made no secret of his white supremacist and anti-government agenda).

Suspects that happen to identify as Muslim, though, are not guaranteed a standard of “innocent until proven guilty.” We know nothing about the two suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We know nothing about the motivation behind the bombing, and nothing that law enforcement agencies have told the media has yet been proven in court, so it should not be reported as fact. We have no answers — only questions. Many, many questions. Yet still, mainstream narratives insist that it is somehow related to “Chechen roots,” “anti-American sentiment,” and, of course, “radical Islam.”

This truth remains: Neither race nor religion cause, or even correlate with, violence.

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The idea that there are foreign forces seeking to destroy us leads us to define “us” in a way that excludes “them.” The quest for a feeling of safety trumps the importance of the U.S. experiment of liberty. We are paralyzed by our fear, and so sign away our Constitutional and human rights without thinking we lose those rights permanently. The 19-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev was not read his Miranda rights for days after his arrest, while national elected officials called for him to be tried as an “enemy combatant” (he is a U.S. citizen), even tortured. Why do we even have a Bill of Rights if it gets thrown out every time the media makes the public mad at someone?

Also by Sheldon: How 9/11 has Shaped our Collective Struggle

We must not let this climate of fear and violence become a new normal. We must be cautious about the words we use, and the concepts and double standards we perpetuate. We live in an age of fear and instant gratification, both of which contribute to our increasingly strong desire for immediate answers and “justice” in the wake of seemingly inexplicable violence. As a nation, and as individuals, we need to do some soul searching. We are in desperate need of transformation — of turning away from prejudice, of turning toward self-sacrificial love and trust.

This nation has always struggled to align its ideals with its historical reality, climaxing in movements to abolish slavery and uphold citizenship and voting rights for women and minorities. That struggle continues as the nation deals with its new position as a global empire, the clear aggressor in its conflicts abroad. But it will come down to our collective efforts if we are to reverse the momentum that brings that war home, with all of its violence and evil. It is not just our liberty or our security that is at stake, but our humanity.

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Sheldon C. Good is Assistant Director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington (D.C.) Community Scholars’ Center. He is a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College and a member of Salford Mennonite Church. Cyrus McGoldrick is a human rights advocate, activist, artist, and educator based in New York City and Outreach and Development Director for the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, as well as the Muslim Chaplain at Manhattan College.

This post was originally posted on April 25, 2013 on Huffington Post.


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Sheldon C. Good

Sheldon C. GoodSheldon C. Good is Assistant Director of Eastern Mennonite University's Washington (D.C.) Community Scholars' Center. He is a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College and a member of Salford Mennonite Church.View all posts by Sheldon C. Good →

  • SamHamilton

    I like that the authors here take time to define terrorism before talking about it. I think their definition is good, as is their point about how a perpetual climate of fear about terrorism has led to the expansion of government intrusion on privacy, surveillance and human and civil rights – all done in the name of “ending terrorism.” When will this end? Apparently never, as long as there is a “war on terror” to be fought. It’s apparently unending, just like the war on drugs or the war on poverty or any other such undefined “war.”

    There might be a time when it’s accurate to call what happened in Boston terrorism. It’s likely that the bombers were radicalized by a form of violent Islam. But until we know for sure, we should be careful about our language.

  • jonathan starkey

    OK let me spell this out for you. 2 guys made homemade bombs. Planted them around the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Detonated them. Wounded a couple hundred and killing several. Fled have several other “armed” violent interactions with the police. And it has been revealed that they may have wanted to also detonate bombs in time square.

    And you’re mad that they didn’t read him his Miranda rights.

    Insert Gene Wilder meme here.

    • SamHamilton

      Jonathan,
      I didn’t get the sense that the authors of this blog post were upset at all about the treatment of the individual bombers.

      • jonathan starkey

        I don’t think the accusations a simply media prejudice here. Just take for instance the South Korean Killer in Virginia, nobody was calling that terrorism.

        I think people are able to discern the situation better than we give credit for.

        Say for instance, these 2 bombers were second generation American, and not nationalized refugees. The SURROUNDING story may have been completely different.

        There is a real threat and it’s not just prejudice of receiving refugees into our nation. Some go on to live regular American lives while others bring some of their Tribal and refugee baggage.

        I think it’s very Christian to bring refugees to America, and we shouldn’t stop. But I also think we need to be sober when these things happen and not just screaming your all just being “prejudice.”

        My point is that there is room for speculation, and yeah maybe we should be more careful with our assignments of terrorism, but you can’t manage all peoples responses. Why need to give anger some room as a part of the grief process. Obviously as Christians I hope we don’t join in on National and Tribal warfare.

        A lot of TERROR comes from war orphans.

  • TruthSeeker

    “Terrorism — a form of communication and a military tactic, not an ideology — is the systematic use of violence against civilians to intimidate them for a political purpose.”

    Can you please share that with the USA Department of Defense? They are systematically and narratively singling out Evangelical Christians as “terrorists.” Perhaps they are mistaken in their definition? Or, perhaps you are? Which is it?

    • SamHamilton

      Hi, can you give some context to your accusation? What is the DOD actually doing?

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeepNarcosis William J. Green

    There is one form of terrorism we can eliminate forthwith.

    The only thing that holds up the Collapse of Roe v Wade is the question of “When does a fully human homo sapien become a ‘person’?” Science told us at Fertilization. Pro-Abortionists disagree.

    The only thing that holds up the Collapse of Roe v Wade is the question of “When does a fully human homo sapien become a ‘person’?” Science told us at Fertilization. Pro-Abortionists disagree.

    Here’s one possible solution: Instead of a litmus test for when a 100% Human DNA homo sapien becomes a person, let’s decide when a person becomes a HUMANE HUMAN. Show everyone a video depicting a 10 week abortion and a 24 week abortion. Everyone who recoils in horror and calls it “gross” and INHUMANE is a HUMANE human being; everyone who ignores the gore and slaughter and calls for Abortion on Demand is INHUMAN and INHUMANE. Then let ONLY the HUMANE HUMANS decide when a human being becomes a “person.”

    Problem Solved: Roe Collapses and ~1,211,016 babies & moms lives will be saved every year.

  • keith

    Your definition of terrorism is somewhat skewed. the United Nations General Assembly has condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them. If the attack at Ft Hood wasn’t ideological I will kiss your behind. The idea that ANY Islamic bombing, shooting, or hostage situation is not ideological is plain horse sh#$. Quit trying to give these animals a reprieve. They deserve NONE. Their bible is a perpetuator of the indiscriminate killings that they so love. I just watched a video of a scumbag cutting the heart out of his Syrian victim and actually eating it. Posted by a Muslim Brotherhood defector. Yes, he actually opened up the chest cavity and removed the heart and liver. NICE. If I had 10 copies of the Queeran I would burn every one. Its time to throw the liberals out with the rest of the garbage. If you wont take care of your children, many of us will. It makes me sick to my stomach to read the sympathizers of such animals. They are not even worth calling human. Do you know that the Queeran calls for the decapitation of an enemy and then to use it to cook on an open fire? Do your homework and call a spade a spade. I don’t give a rats behind how many Muslims I offend. If they worship from this book then they are my enemy. Most of them give to the established mosques here which in turn fund terrorists abroad or even here. There are NO Muslims here that are not culpable except those who are no longer following Islam. Proof positive is the mother of the two POS that bombed Boston. She blamed us….bahahahahahaha You people are so stupid its amazing.

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