Calling the Insurrectionists “Terrorists” Feels Good… It Doesn’t Mean that It’s Right
By Johnny Jabbour, 1L Representative
I googled the word “terrorist” today. Of the first ten headlines that popped up, eight had to do with the Canadian government’s designation of the Proud Boys as a terrorist group, one had to do with American lawmakers considering legislation targeting domestic terror groups, and one had to do with a Palestinian who entered onto an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Of those ten headlines, only one was about an Arab person. The rest were about White Americans. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have fathomed that this would be a reality in the United States today. And yet, as an Arab-American, I hardly consider this to be a good thing.
I get it: the desire for vengeance against President Trump and his supporters is real. For four years Trump employed both rhetoric and policy against Muslims, he recklessly threatened war with Iran, and he gave Benjamin Netanyahu a wink and nod to demolish a record number of Palestinian homes. If terrorism were a quantifiably measurable concept, I already know which governments, organizations, and world leaders would lead the charge. But the word isn’t quantifiable; it’s hardly even descriptive given how shamelessly it’s been used to describe everyone from Osama Bin Laden to Michelle Obama. I admit that using the word to more pointedly describe Trump and the January 6 insurrectionists feels great. Even so, we must resist over-using it.
What does “terrorism” even mean? According to 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5), domestic terrorism pertains to activities that:
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the
United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States[.]
(bold added for emphasis)
The most striking part of the definition is § 2331(5)(B), which names the appearance of one’s intention as an element of terrorism, rather than the actual intention itself. This means that terrorism is specifically defined by how others perceive someone’s actions, rather than by the alleged terrorist’s actual mens rea. Given the often villainous portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in American media and art, it is no wonder then that in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the term had been so liberally used against these groups. As long as one only appears to intend to (i) intimidate, (ii) influence, or (iii) affect, they can legally be labeled a terrorist.
It goes without saying that this is hogwash. This definition is extremely susceptible to pre-conceived racial biases and has been used to intimidate and surveil Arab and Muslim men living in this country. I can go on about my own personal experiences with racism since 9/11: “random” TSA checks and interviews where officers seemed to have prior knowledge of my professional and educational background; being stopped by Capitol DC police for simply “fitting the description”; and countless macro/micro-aggressions in professional and academic environments by peers, professors, and bosses. The worst part about the overuse of the word “terrorist” is how it is still used to shut down ideological perspectives—specifically Leftist ones—that veer from mainstream schools of thought. I know exactly what this feels like, and for that reason, I don’t wish any other group of people to experience what I did—not even those who imposed that experience on me for the last 20 years.
I don’t want my argument to be misconstrued as language-policing. There may be a time and place to use the word “terrorist,” but we really must find a better way to discuss these issues than to use words that are charged with such empty yet destructive meaning. How can we do this?
Recently in my criminal law class, Professor Anna Roberts led a discussion about differential punishment between White parents and Black parents who had each gamed their respective educational systems in favor of their own children. Where Black parents received harsher sentences for using false addresses for school enrollment, White parents received slaps on the wrist for falsifying entire college applications. Professor Roberts posed a critical question on how to remedy the racial disparity in punishment: is it better to (a) punish White parents as harshly as we punish Black parents, or (b) afford Black parents the same leniency that we do to White parents?
To that question, I choose option (b) as the appropriate remedy, and here I draw a parallel: we should not speak about violent White criminals in the same way that we have been speaking about violent Arab and Muslim criminals for the last 20 years. Instead, I hope that we can recall how we have collectively offered leniency to violent White criminals in the past. Media coverage of the Waco siege, Oklahoma City bombing, and the Olympic Park bombing can remind us how to speak of terrorism without demonizing White Christian men. Surely, we can learn to do the same with Arabs, Muslims, and other people of color too.
The danger in escalating rhetoric against Whites to match harsh rhetoric against Arabs and Muslims lies in its consequences. And to that, I refer back to the one of ten headlines that appeared in my Google search today: the one about American lawmakers considering legislation targeting domestic terrorism. By ramping up rhetoric, we create a social frenzy that facilitates lawmakers in passing dangerous legislation. After 9/11, the public’s fear of terrorism drove Congress and the president to pass the Patriot Act, establish the Department of Homeland Security, and create other agencies like ICE and Customs and Border Protection. With that fear now focused on a large swath of the electorate—namely Trump apologists—there’s no telling how far legislators would go to cede our civil liberties to the surveillance state. If we can’t resist escalating the rhetoric in this moment, I fear that it will be a very long time before we ever do so in the future.