What we mean when we call our neighbors “terrorists”

A chart from ThinkProgress is currently making the rounds on Tumblr, especially among self-described liberal blogs, depicting what it claims to be the rise of right-wing “terrorism.” Ken Sofer writes:

Fifty-six percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. since 1995 have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists, as compared to 30 percent by ecoterrorists and 12 percent by Islamic extremists. Right-wing extremism has been responsible for the greatest number of terrorist incidents in the U.S. in 13 of the 17 years since the Oklahoma City bombing.

Predictably, Sofer demands more resources to be poured into the laughably ineffective Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the express purpose of tracking and monitoring what the government defines as domestic threats.

In order to protect American citizens, we need to match our resources to the reality of our threats, not just the politically expedient narratives we have formed.

Now, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with devoting an appropriate amount of resources to combat national threats. Ideally, Sofer would have said to shutter the DHS entirely, but instead gripes about the fact that only a single DHS agent is tasked to monitor his fellow citizens. Sofer also does not take the time to ask, “by what measure or standard does the DHS define terroristic acts?” and “what does the DHS mean by terrorism?”

It has been evident in the past decade—beginning with the Bush administration and continuing under the Obama administration—that the word “terrorism” and what constitutes a “terrorist” is indeed, as Sofer rightfully points out, based on “politically expedient narratives.” The definition at this point is so meaningless that it no longer denotes the act of terror itself but, according to Glenn Greenwald, a politically manipulated epithet to identify those who oppose the interests of the United States and its allies. Simply put, a terrorist is someone who the United States is currently killing and terrorism an act that it is counter to its interests.

That is why, for example, legitimate resistance to American occupation in Iraq is libeled as “terrorism” whereas Sgt. Robert Bales’ midnight excursion that resulted in the deaths of 17 innocent Afghan civilians is merely a product of a troubled mind. And why Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani’s material support of the Iranian terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is not prosecuted despite very public evidence, while an innocent 16-year old American teen gets blown to bits for no apparent reason. Additionally, the government’s counter-terrorism efforts are increasingly being turned against domestic political organizations that seem threaten the political establishment. Missouri, for example, famously labeled Ron Paul supporters as domestic terrorists and there is mounting evidence that Occupy Wall Street has been deemed a domestic terror threat by various government agencies. The chilling effect of this has on legitimate dissent and political speech cannot be overstated.

Given what we know about what the American government does to people it considers terrorists, I do not understand Sofer’s casual and flippant branding of people he politically disagrees with as “terrorists.” Whether we agree with it or not, there is a separate set of rules that dictates what the government does to people it considers terrorists. The reality is that the government indefinitely detains, tortures, and extra-judicially kills terrorists, a reality that will not suddenly change because the accused is an American (for evidence, see Abdulrahaman al-Awlaki or Yonas Fikre cases). While we can disagree whether the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” are utterly meaningless, but there is no question that being labeled by the government as a terrorist is a grave matter.

When we libel our neighbors, our fellow Americans, as “terrorists,” we are implicitly giving permission to the State to perpetrate the same heinous acts it commits against foreign enemies against our own countrymen. Any reasonable person would be horrified at the thought.