When a historically Black church in Greenville, Miss. was set on fire just a week before President Trump’s election in an act that was later determined as voter intimidation, the town’s mayor said, “This kind of attack happened in the 1950s and 1960s, but it shouldn’t happen in 2016.” But it did—and hate crime statistics continue to rise—proving once again that a violently racist America is well and alive today.
Fueled by the election, hate crimes in the U.S. rose by 20 percent across nine major metropolitan areas. According to a recent report released by a prominent American Muslim civil liberties group, anti-Muslim bias incidents spiked by 57 percent in 2016 and hate crimes rose by 44 percent. The Southern Poverty Law center reported 857 post-election hate incidents only 10 days after Nov. 8, 2016, setting a dangerous precedent for the remaining four years.
Since then, acts like those of Jeremy Christian’s, the man recently accused of killing two and injuring another in Portland after they stood up for two Black girls being targeted with racial and anti-Muslim slurs, are becoming increasingly common. Despite this, the public is failing to recognize their significance and continues to dismiss the increasingly violent far-right as a band of patriotic lunatics.
However, after a systematic surge in hate crimes since President Trump’s election similar to Christian’s, it seems we should begin to deconstruct the recent wave of attacks against minorities in America and label the acts for what they are: terrorism.
What is terrorism?
There is a false yet widely-accepted notion that an attack can only be labeled as an act of terror if it is international in nature. In fact, it is scantly known that the international community has no official definition of the term—neither the United Nations Charter nor the Geneva Conventions specify what exactly incites terror and international institutions have failed to criminalize it in the past.
However, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulation defines the act as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). Despite zero specification of foreign bodies, the media, public and even the federal government is hesitant to label any forceful act committed by a white American citizen “terrorism” and just as quick to denounce seemingly foreign citizens as terrorists.
While the white American male is privy to the terms “mentally disturbed” and “troubled” and is often humanized after committing an act of terror, a person of color is automatically demonized, playing into the false belief that terrorism is always foreign-born instead of homegrown.
The social identity of terrorism
Trump entered his presidency precisely on this false platform that the greatest threat to the country lies outside the nation’s borders and is therefore un-American. His call to rid of “radical Islamic terrorism” garnered support from hundreds of thousands and discriminatory counter-terror measures like the immigration ban made it clear that the enemy was anywhere but at home. Especially harmless was the average-looking white man.
However, a good look at recent events makes it clear that this was never the case.
In 2010, when Andrew Joseph Stack III flew a small plane into the side of an International Revenue Service office in Texas with clear political motivations, authorities insisted that it was not a terrorist attack. An article published in the New York Times mentioned following the incident, “Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.” Almost immediately following the incident, authorities had ruled out any connection to terrorist groups or activity.
Reactions to more recent incidents follow suit: a shooting at the synagogue in Kansas by a former member of the Klu Klux Klan, the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and another on a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin went under-reported. Just last week, a “disgruntled” man killed five employees at a former workplace before taking his own life at the scene, yet failed to make more than just a few headlines.
This recurring pattern where the media and law enforcement are reluctant to report terrorism unless it is committed by a minority is not a recent one. Between 2011 and 2015, Muslims perpetrated only 12.4 percent of the 89 attacks designated as terrorism. At the same time, acts committed by Muslim perpetrators received far more news coverage (according to a recent study conducted by The Washington Post, Muslims perpetrators, on average, receive 449 percent more attention in the media). In this way, white American men are seen as unable or unlikely to engage in terrorist activity while people of color and Muslims become the face of terror.
Conflating terrorism and patriotism
As he was being led out of the courtroom, Jeremy Christian yelled, “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.” Christian may have nailed the issue on the head: America’s history of white supremacist terrorist activity is continuously masked as extreme patriotism that has been given a stage under the Trump administration.
Following Trump’s election, members of the Klu Klux Klan marched in the streets to celebrate. Women wearing hijab reported cases physical assault just hours after his victory speech. Swastikas, nooses and racist graffiti made repeated appearances on public property and places of worship were defamed.
As way of celebrating a new presidency, the “alt-right” was inciting terror that was excused under the pretense of post-election fervor.
Most recently, GOP senator of Louisiana Clay Higgins called for the execution of “radicalized Islamist suspects” in a Facebook post on June 4 and emerged unscathed aside from a handful of criticism. “The free world... all of Christendom... is at war with Islamic horror. Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals,” the tweet read. “Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
By refusing to acknowledge these acts for what they are and excusing their perpetrators as “disgruntled,” “generally easy-going” or “troubled,” we limit who wields the power to truly terrify us.
Living with the consequences
It should come as no surprise, then, that America has now entered an age of “alternative facts” where information is misrepresented to serve a political purpose—this has been the case for hundreds of years (see: yellow journalism, lies of the Vietnam War, etc.) but is only now taking the spotlight thanks to its wayward president and his cabinet. It is only an extension of the trend that continuously leads to skewed standards: terrorism is only terrorism if it is committed by a person of color. The U.S. government cannot incite terror—never mind the drones hovering over villages for days at a time or promises to drop bombs on entire populations. Law enforcement is entitled to “self-defense” even if that leads to the incitement fear in neighborhoods and comes at the expense of the lives of young Black boys.
The success of President Trump’s fear-mongering that led to his entering the White House based on vows to “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and vet an entire religious group as ways to “make America great again” reflects this narrative that has succeeded in dehumanizing victims of terror at home and overseas if they are people of diverse backgrounds while placing extra emphasis on the livelihood of white Americans.
Only when we acknowledge that terrorism and its victims are scattered across racial, ethnic, class and religious lines and that neither terms exempt the Caucasian race will we be able to make sense of the violence that is deeply rooted in U.S. history as it makes a comeback under the guise of making America great.