What, or who, is “terrorism” in America?

Boston bombing editorial cartoon. (source: Denver Post)

(source: Denver Post)

In The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald compares the application of the word “terrorism” in the case of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing against recent previous acts of mass violence in the United States:

It’s hard not to suspect that the only thing distinguishing the Boston attack from Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook and Columbine (to say nothing of the US “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad and the mass killings in Fallujah) is that the accused Boston attackers are Muslim and the other perpetrators are not. As usual, what terrorism really means in American discourse – its operational meaning – is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies.

Notwithstanding the absence in Glenn Greenwald’s piece of any reference to last August’s mass murder of six Sikhs by a white supremacist in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (which is significant in its absence), this is a poignant discussion to be had about the prejudices that are being applied to by-far peaceful American communities.

Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it so that Sikhs — the predominant turban-wearing population in the United States — are also painted with this unfair brush.

Incidentally, it is also interesting to note that among the cities that are listed in Glenn Greenwald’s article, of those in which attacks occurred during President Obama’s administration, the city he did not mention — Oak Creek, Wisconsin — was also the only one not to have been visited personally by the President.

Wajahat Ali also examines the “terrorist” label in his article in Salon, and asks the question head on:

What’s the difference between the “terrorism” of the Tsarnaev brothers and the “lone radical” violence of white supremacist Wade Page, who shot and killed six Sikh Americans at their temple? What are the definitions and standards for “terrorism”? Who decides?

A week earlier, Tim Wise predictably answered that question in an article about white privilege:

White privilege is knowing that if the bomber turns out to be white, he or she will be viewed as an exception to an otherwise non-white rule, an aberration, an anomaly, and that he or she will be able to join the ranks of pantheon of white people who engage in (or have plotted) politically motivated violence meant to terrorize — and specifically to kill — but whose actions result in the assumption of absolutely nothing about white people generally, or white Christians in particular.

Indeed, while the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing are ethnically Caucasian, their Islamic background has become the focus despite that it is not clear either brother was a particularly devout Muslim for a lengthy period of time. On the other hand, Muslim American groups denounced the Boston attacks almost immediately. We saw no such denouncement by white supremacist groups in the United States when Wade Michael Page murdered six innocent and unsuspecting people eight months ago.


  1. HS Vachoa

    It’s the motivation that differentiates terrorism from other crimes. Terrorism is defined by the motive to mass intimidate a population for a political or religious objective. Putting things is perspective, Adam Lanza didn’t have a possible religious or political objective, whereas Islamist radicals and White Supremacists do have a religious statement to make by killing innocents in history and that what makes them terrorists.

  2. Pingback: What is Terrorism? Was the Boston Marathon Bombing Terrorism

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