Speaking of Terror
Two weeks ago I was in New York City. My brother and I saw a play and passed through Times Square on our way to the train station. “It’s kind of neat how we made advertisements themselves a tourist attraction,” I said. “Very American.”
And then the crowd moved.
It had been moving already, of course, in swirling mid-tempo semi-chaos. But this was different. This was a wave. It came from my right and moved straight at me, people running—all of the people running. Everything seemed to be moving simultaneously very slow and very fast. I thought: “Probably nothing real is happening.” Because… well, because that’s how probably works. But on the other hand the people running at me could see things that I couldn’t see, and there were so many of them and every single one so frightened, and mass shootings are more likely when other mass shootings are in the news, and Times Square isn’t an unlikely location…
It felt exactly like the dreams I have sometimes, where I see a light falling down from the sky and know that when it hits the ground the world will end in a great rushing wall of fire, and then I think with relief “This is just one of those dreams” and then, a moment later, “But what if it’s not? What if this is the real one?”
And so I ran—in a different direction from my brother, I realized a moment after—and was swept up into a stream of people flowing into a trendy clothing store. “There were gunshots,” said a man, fiftyish, “multiple gunshots.” The store was tall and bright and full of mirrors and thomp-et-a-thomp-et-a music and we waited among the clothes racks.
There were no gunshots, it turned out. Just a motorcycle backfiring.
According to news reports six people were hospitalized with minor injuries after that Times Square panic, which seems almost boringly, obviously metaphorical. The fear of violence drove us to hurt ourselves when no actual violence was present. We did a lot of things in running, stumbling fear after 9/11, of course, but more recently we do things like traumatize children en masse through active shooter drills.
I wanted to write about the definition of “terrorism” (which I’ll get to) and so I googled “terrorism mass shootings” to see the things which were being written and stumbled across a Los Angeles Times column from a mother who says her children “wonder when it will be their turn to either run, duck or fall. Not if. When,” that she has spent years giving them advice about what to do when a shooter appears, and I want to hire a skywriter to draw “BE NOT AFRAID” in clouds over every elementary school in America. The writer scornfully cites the tweet where “DeGrasse Tyson points out, for reasons of his own, that lots of people die from the flu too.” Well, his reasons are that if you aren’t haunted by dread certainty that your children will die of the flu (not if, when) then you shouldn’t let these acts of shocking, shaking public violence haunt you either.
Mass shootings may happen horrifically often for the kind of thing they are but they’re still incredibly rare on the scale of just things. Even if federal gun control is vitally necessary you don’t have to wait for it to not be afraid, you don’t have to depend on the dynamics of Republican primaries for your peace, you can grab it now, you can open the windows.
The entire point of terroristic violence is to make people afraid. Mass shootings and bombings and truck attacks are designed (more than designed—evolved) to spread fear out of proportion to statistical risk. To not be affected all by that is like trying to will out of your head the melody of a pop song engineered for maximum catchiness. And of course we’re living in the best time in the history of the world for it, the age of the meme and the real-time massacre updates. It’s too much to ask people not to be affected. Whoever first heard the motorcycle backfire in Times Square should have been less afraid. They shouldn’t have run, causing other people to run in a terrified echo. And I should have at least taken a moment to make sure I was running in the same direction as my brother so that I didn’t end up alone and worried in the back of a clothes store. And yet…
That is one reason it is good and important for government and society to spend more resources and attention on preventing public violence, terrorism, hate crimes, than would be suggested by spreadsheet accounting of how many people are killed by what. This violence victimizes more people than it kills, a psychic weapon against entire communities.
But if certain kinds of violence demand more from us, defining and describing violence becomes charged with power.
I. Call it by Its Name
In 2016, Omar Mateen paused in the middle of his massacre at an Orlando nightclub to call the police and pledge his allegiance to the leader of ISIS, and reportedly told the people he was murdering he wanted the United States to stop bombing Syria. This was the last high profile incidence of Islamist terrorism in the US before a string of massacres by Internet-soaked white nationalists, so it was also the last time I recall national politicians squabbling over the words “radical Islamic terrorism” vs. “Islamist terrorism.” I also remember Republican politicians vowing to root out ISIS plots wherever they are growing. And that seemed… not quite right.
Because as far as any news reported at the time (and to this day) Mateen was not known to have planned the attack with anyone, to have been in contact with any member of ISIS overseas or otherwise. He watched videos online. An “ISIS plot” sounded more like the large-scale and coordinated attacks in Paris the year before, which required a conspiracy and killed hundreds. And yet it’s vitally important, apparently, to group Orlando and Paris together as the same kind of thing, opposed to other mass shootings that aren’t “terrorism” because they lack recognizable “political” motives. And this presumably justifies… something. Republican policies on terrorism, or simply thinking and talking about terrorism in a Republican sort of way.
If we agree that certain kinds of violence demand certain things from us, there becomes great rhetorical power in the way incidents are grouped into kinds. Like pro-gun-control groups counting, say, a suicide in a school parking lot at night as a “school shooting.”
I spent quite a while exploring the Center for Investigative Reporting’s database of “homegrown” terror, which is representative of statistics used to demonstrate the threat of right-wing terrorism, and found that it gave the same label to many incidents that seemed like really-not-quite-the-same-kind-of-thing. There’s a lot of arson. There’s a few cases of simple vandalism (mostly environmentalist or anti-abortion). One of the incidents that most clearly doesn’t belong is an act of “leftwing terrorism” in which a pair of animal rights activists vandalized property and released a bunch of mink.
Most of the “rightwing terrorism” involved police. There are several deliberately planned attacks on cops with clearly stated ideological motives. But also: an unsuccessful attempt to kill a particular cop to keep him from testifying in a trial for drug charges; a Trump-style old man racist who shot a couple cops, though his family insists his ideology was if anything pro-cop; various right-wingers shooting at the police who come to arrest them for things like domestic violence or counterfeiting.
“Extremist belief systems,” the CIR explain in their methodology, quoting an expert, “cause individuals to be ‘attack-oriented’ rather than ‘escape-oriented,’ to use violence to attack or confront authority figures rather than flee or submit to them.” Which may well be so, but it blurs the line between terrorism as violence with a political motive and terrorism as violence committed by political people. And regardless, sovereign citizens resisting arrest is not why the general public is anxious and afraid of terroristic violence.
This is a whole lot of nitpicking given that I don’t even disagree that white supremacists should be of greater concern than Islamists in the US and federal law enforcement should focus more resources on them. I don’t even have a conclusion to draw, really. It’s just that the question of what is and isn’t terrorism is treated as so important and yet we don’t actually agree on a definition and sometimes it skitters around, with one kind of thing used as the emotional example and another kind of thing counted up to make a big number. It makes me uneasy.
II. Agreeing with Terrorists
Another thing I noticed while exploring that database is that I agree with quite a few terrorists.
I’m anti-abortion. I think TSA searches violate rights. I think the federal government owns too much land in the west. I identify strongly with the Gadsen flag that Jared and Amanda Miller draped over the body of a cop they’d killed. And like Jared Miller I believe police abuses are a huge problem. I have referred to cops as “pretty much the scum of the earth.” I think Muslims are often mistreated in the West, and while my feelings about US military actions in the Middle East are more confused than anything, I do know that civilians die in bombs dropped by US drones and that is bad.
I noticed all these points of agreement in part because multiple recent mass shootings were anti-immigrant, and accordingly anti-immigrant Trump and Trumpists and Fox News were explicitly blamed. People seem to think it’s obvious which points of agreement with a terrorist’s ideology implicate people in their violence and which don’t, and I’m just… not sure. I’m not sure why the environmentalist, anti-corporation parts of the anti-immigrant El Paso shooter’s manifesto don’t matter. I’m not sure why it doesn’t matter that a previous white nationalist terrorist explicitly rejected Trump for being a pro-Jewish pansy. I’ve gotten into bitter arguments on Twitter about this because people think I’m obtuse, and I am definitely defensive as a somewhat-conservative. But I swear I also honestly wonder.
The man who killed three people and then himself at the Gilroy garlic festival “appeared interested in multiple violent ideologies” according to the FBI. They’re trying to figure out which one he settled on. His potential target list seems to have included “political organizations from both major political parties.” I imagine what would have happened if he’d come down on one or the other of those multiple violent ideologies, adjusted his target accordingly and posted about it online. I imagine one political side or the other angrily marking his massacre on a gory scoreboard.
And meanwhile the violent movement of Columbine-ism continues to spark massacres with no mainstream figures whose rhetoric can be blamed. (So with them we just keep fighting about gun control).
I don’t have any conclusion except uncertainty and unease. I don’t know whether I should be running, or in what direction.