Karen Fratti
December 11, 2017 7:19 pm
Anadolu Agency / Contributor/Getty Images

Whenever anything happens that could be described as an act of terrorism, and the perpetrator is Muslim, certain politicians and media outlets can’t move fast enough to call it “radical Islamic terrorism,” as if “terrorism” isn’t a comprehensive enough word. Monday’s attempted suicide bombing in the Port Authority of New York City was no different.

According to federal and local New York City authorities, the perpetrator of Monday’s attack had been living in Brooklyn for seven years. Although the investigation is ongoing, he was apparently inspired by the ISIS “Christmas attacks” in Europe the past few years, which means he was radicalized here. Officials are calling it an “attempted terrorist attack,” since the man only injured himself, along with four others who sustained minor injuries.

Donald Trump released a statement after the bombing saying that America could have prevented the attack with immigration reform (though the man is not from a country on Trump’s travel ban list) and did not use the words “radical Islamic terror,” which is pretty interesting.

During the debates last year, he said of then Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, “These are radical Islamic terrorists, and she won’t even mention the word, and nor will President Obama. Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name.”

He certainly has a point in one regard: Stating the name of the problem is often the first step. But his lack of tweet storms on Monday about “radical Islamists” is telling (although there’s still time, obviously). It’s possible that someone on his team has axed that verbiage from his official statements, since it’s misleading and could possibly lend to accusations that Trump is, after all, Islamaphobic. He has refused to call other terror attacks that happened this year “radical Christian terrorism” or even “white supremacy,” most notably after a sniper murdered 58 and injured 546 people in Las Vegas in October and a white nationalist borrowed one of of ISIS’ new methods and drove a truck into a group of protestors in Charlottesville in August, or the countless other attacks of political violence perpetrated by white, Christian, nationalists just this year.

If you want to nitpick, fine. Some, like the New Yorker‘s Masha Gessen, suggests that since these are lone actors and not some “substate groups” that they don’t technically earn the terrorism label. She makes a distinction between “politically motivated” violence and “terrorism,” and warns against using the term (or any term) so broadly risks stripping it of all meaning. For example, there’s no evidence that the Las Vegas was motivated by politics and she refrains from calling it terrorism, which is defined as “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It does, at the end of the day, change how these perpetrators are tried in American court, if they survive their own violence, and leads to greater charges.

But maybe we’re being too lenient by being afraid to label any act of violence against people as “terrorism” just because it doesn’t work with the idea that all terrorists have be of a certain race, creed, or take people hostage on airplanes. We get what Gessen is saying, but the fact remains that 2001 and 2015, right-wing extremists have killed more Americans than any Islamist terrorist, according to the nonpartisan think tank New America. Where’s the label to account for their political motivations?

The chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by an immigrant is one in 3.6 million, and that includes the statistically offsetting number of 9/11 deaths. As Zack Beauchamp wrote over at Vox, that means people are more likely to die from their own clothing or a toddler with a gun.

We don’t know about you, but when someone claims to be a white supremacist — like the white man from Baltimore who came to New York with the explicit intent to kill black people, stabbing 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death, or the Oregon man who screamed at two Muslim kids on a train “We need Americans here!” and then stabbed two men who tried to help to death — sounds a lot like someone engaging in terrorism. But you didn’t hear anyone call them “radical” anything. At the same time, Trump insisted that President Obama call the Orlando shooter a “radical Islamic terrorist,” though his allegiance to ISIS was weak at best, and ISIS sort of takes credit for anything they feel fits their brand, according to the New York Times.

It’s one thing to debate the overall meaning of terrorism, and if someone comes up with a better way to distinguish between different violent, politically motivated acts, we’re here for it. But using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” has become such a buzzword and racist dog whistle for ring-wing politicians that we have to demand they be specific (or even acknowledge) all of these acts of racist, political attempts to murder people while they’re commuting to work or shopping in a holiday market.

When people insist on using the term “radical Islamic terrorist,” they aren’t trying to accurately label an act of violence nor are they worrying about how the perpetrator will be tried in court. What they want to do is stoke fear in the “other” in an effort to further right wing, isolationist agendas, whether it’s trade deals or immigration policies.

Labeling some violence “radical Islam” and ignoring the self-identified Christians who bomb abortion clinics, or any other act of violence perpetrated by a non-Muslim, is a way to get people behind “America First” policies, even though it’s most often Americans killing other Americans. If Americans want to use the term “terrorism” loosely and specify a religion or a race when they speak about it, it’s only fair to insist that they drop the qualifiers, “Christian,” “white,” or “male,” when it applies. Chances are, the same people who readily employ the term “radical Islamic terrorism” would be quick to clarify that self-identified Christians who perpetrate violence aren’t representative of their religion or its morals, and would be horribly offended and upset at having their religion associated with such violence. Maybe something to think about when it comes to the millions of peaceful Muslims in the world.

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