Selective Outrage on ‘Terrorism’

America’s view of “terrorism” is distorted by politics and bias, with intense hostility toward the Islamic variety but with much more tolerance of other forms, such as Cuban “anti-communist” violence and right-wing extremist murders, as underscored by a new study examined by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Many misconceptions about terrorism prevail among the American public. Occasionally one of these misconceptions gets challenged when hard data conveying a different picture become available. This is true of a recent New America study showing that most of the deaths in the United States from terrorist attacks since September 2001 have been perpetrated not by jihadists or other radical Muslims but instead by white supremacists, antigovernment activists, and other non-Muslim extremists.

The discrepancy between such findings and prevalent American beliefs about terrorism can be glaring enough for the discrepancy to become literally a front-page story. But even that sort of attention is insufficient to kill prevailing beliefs, in this case, the belief that terrorism and specifically terrorism that threatens Americans is overwhelmingly a radical Muslim thing.

Rep. Peter King, R-New York

Rep. Peter King, R-New York

Information similar to that in the New America study has been around for some time; a survey of law enforcement agencies, for example, yielded similar data. The recent multiple killings by a white supremacist in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, has led some to raise a closely related issue of what tends to get called terrorism and what doesn’t. But this incident is another attention-grabbing event that seems again unlikely to overturn the popular notions of who most terrorists are and what they believe.

The misconceptions have multiple roots. The experience of 9/11 unquestionably has been very important in shaping American beliefs. That one event was so salient and traumatic that it has fostered a host of other misconceptions, such as the notion that significant terrorist threats to the United States all began on that one day 14 years ago.

The attitude-shaping effect of 9/11 rested atop longer-standing American ways of perceiving threats to American security, based in large part on the wars of the Twentieth Century. Americans tend to see the biggest threats to their security coming from alien entities abroad. Jihadist groups based in the Middle East are among the latest such entities to fill this role.

The “war on terror” vocabulary prevalent after 9/11 exacerbated these tendencies. The concept of warring against a tactic never made sense. Making war against al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of 9/11, made more conceptual sense, but it had the further disadvantage of equating, in American minds, terrorism with this one foreign group (a conflation that persisted past the Bush administration and into the Obama administration).

Islamophobia is certainly another factor, despite a widespread reluctance to admit that it is. The dynamic involved is a simple, crude tendency, based on religious and ethnic identities, to be more likely to see threats and evil coming from people with identities different from one’s own. Islamophobia is a significant reality in a predominantly Judeo-Christian America.

Political biases rooted in other interests have been factors as well, including in the tendency to downplay the right-wing extremist threats that the New America study showed to be the source of most terrorist attacks on Americans.

In his New York Times article on the study, Scott Shane recalls the episode several years ago in which criticism from conservatives led the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw a report that highlighted a prospective threat of violence from white supremacists during Barack Obama’s presidency, a threat of which the Charleston killings turned out to be one manifestation.

Then there were the hearings of the House homeland security committee that were ostensibly about terrorist threats to the homeland but focused entirely on radical Islamism. The committee chairman who specified that scope for the hearings, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, had earlier shown that he had no problem at all with terrorism of the Irish nationalist variety.

The practical and policy consequences of these distortions in thinking about terrorism go beyond Americans not realizing where the greatest threats to their safety come from and extend to foreign policy.

The so-called Islamic State or ISIS has displaced Al-Qaeda as the radical Islamist threat du jour in American minds, and this has shifted the whole discourse about policy toward the countries in which ISIS operates in a direction that would not be justified without the mistaken pattern of thinking about terrorist threats to the United States.

It is a discourse in which the liberal columnist Richard Cohen, for example, avers that “if the Islamic State survives, the entity that would emerge would more than likely bring the war home to the United States…” That sounds eerily like the “we’ll have to fight them over there or else we will fight them here” framing that has gotten the United States into trouble overseas before.

The equation of terrorism with foreign entities and the intrusion of other political motives means that states are highlighted as sources of terrorism, but only some states: ones that are disliked for other reasons and do not have political support for getting a pass.

That is why the official U.S. list of state sponsors has never come close to being an accurate reflection of where sources of active terrorism are to be found. It also is why, with politically strong elements opposing any business with Iran, the theme of Iranian terrorism gets constantly invoked even though the most unambiguous terrorist attacks that Iran has been involved with in recent years have been attempted tit-for-tat reprisals for terrorist attacks that others — who get a pass — have inflicted on Iran.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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6 comments for “Selective Outrage on ‘Terrorism’

  1. Tony Nobaloney
    June 28, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    One man’s terrorist is another mans freedom fighter.

  2. Abe
    June 27, 2015 at 2:39 am

    Malaysia, frustrated by the refusal of the official international investigation-team to produce any clear evidence yet of whom to blame for the downing of the MH17 Malaysian airliner over the Ukrainian civil-war zone on 17 July 2014, has finally forced the team to request the UN to investigate. They’ve forced the original four nations on the team to accept UN adjudication of any final report. This will enable a court-proceeding to make the ultimate determination of guilt (upon which judgment penalties and compensation will be assessed), and this court-determination would inevitably allow whatever party is being blamed by the five-member official investigating team, to present its own evidence in the case, so that the court will make the ultimate determination — the official investigating team will not be performing that crucial judgmental function.

    Malaysia was long prohibited from even participating in this investigational team, but on 5 November 2014, a deal was finally reached with the four nations that did comprise the team — four U.S. allies: Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, and (a suspect in possibly having downed the MH17) Ukraine itself (though it had lost none of its citizens in the disaster) — so, the next day, Malaysia’s New Straits Times headlined “Malaysia to join MH17 criminal probe team,” and reported that, “The prime minister said the country had been invited to play a bigger role in the recovery and investigation of the ill-fated aircraft, believed to have been downed by a missile over eastern Ukraine on July 17.” The Malaysian report went on then, pointedly, to note: “In July, the Dutch and Ukrainian authorities agreed that the bulk of the operations would be carried out by the Netherlands, with assistance from countries whose citizens were on board the flight. Malaysia had repeatedly asked to be part of the joint investigation team, currently comprising investigators from the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and Ukraine.” Implicitly, that phrase “Malaysia had repeatedly asked to be part of the investigating team” said that Malaysia had consistently been refused membership until 5 November 2014. In fact, even by late November of 2014, Malaysia continued to be refused membership, and I headlined on November 30th, “Malaysia Becomes Angry About Exclusion from MH17 Investigation.” That refusal was especially outrageous because, like three of the four nations that already were on the team, Malaysia had lost (44) citizens from the downing. But in addition, Malaysia had lost the plane, from it. There was no excuse for the four pro-Western nations to exclude Malaysia, and for their limiting the investigating-team to only Ukraine (a key suspect in the downing) and three of its allies. And, between November and now, Malaysia has finally become so fed-up with the team’s continuing refusal to act, and to declare the culprit, so that the rest of the team finally consented to Malaysia’s demand to transfer the investigation over to the UN.

    Malaysian Pressure Forces MH17 Investigation to UN
    By Eric Zuesse
    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/06/malaysian-pressure-forces-mh17-investigation-to-un.html

  3. Joe Tedesky
    June 26, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    When I first heard this I immediately searched the web, and yes it was true. After the police apprehended Dylann Roof they stopped off at the local Burger King and purchased the mass murderer a meal. Roof complained of being hungry. So, the good results of police sensitivity training are observed when arresting a ‘white supremacist’.

    If Dylann’s crime is to be determined to be an act of terrorism, does that mean the U.S. will bomb Texas? Isn’t that how we do it. I mean, 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian, so that meant we bomb Afghanistan then invade Iraq. If we hold to such fighting terrorist tactics, then shouldn’t we blow up Texas, and capture Virginia. That makes sense, since Roof committed his crime in South Carolina…Right?

    • Mark
      June 27, 2015 at 9:15 am

      Good points — The stop at Burger King sounds hilarious but on consideration it’s outrageous.

      If a person is a neocon or sentimental towards their philosophies and causes, then any action can be justified and condoned as long as it’s insane…

  4. Abe
    June 26, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    The US has found itself revising history, attempting to explain the existence of ISIS lurking in the footprints of its massive support of so-called “moderates” in Syria’s ongoing conflict. The US has attempted to claim ISIS has built itself on “donations,” selling oil to the black market, and by taking hostages for ransom. If only building a multinational terrorist mercenary force was that easy, we could imagine Syria, Iraq, and Iran would likewise have vast mercenary armies to outmatch ISIS in an afternoon.

    The reality is, to explain how the US and its regional partners have provided “moderates” with billions in aid only to have ISIS rise up and displace these “moderates,” we must realize that there were never any “moderates” to begin with, and that the US intentionally armed and funded terrorists, just as Hersh warned in 2007, to create a terrorist mercenary army that “espouses a militant vision of Islam” and is “sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

    ISIS didn’t displace the “moderates,” the truth of what America has done in the Middle East has displaced the lies the West has been telling the public starting in 2011 at the height of the so-called “Arab Spring.”

    ISIS: America’s Terrorist Mercenaries
    By Tony Cartalucci
    http://www.libertyroundtable.com/2014/12/17/isis-americas-terrorist-mercenaries/

  5. Bob Loblaw
    June 26, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    It’s simple,
    America calls it terrorism when it is brown people fighting allegedly for Islamic caliphate.

    It’s common mental illness or plain murder when a white person is committing their atrocity.

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