The Troubling Way We Talk About Terrorism

There’s an article on that pinpoints something that has been bothering me for a while now. Namely the fact that white people seem to be completely immune from being labeled either “terrorists” or “radicals” in the mainstream press. It’s annoying in large part because it very subtly alters the way people think about these events. White guy? Ah, lone crazy, call the cops. Brown guy? Clearly there’s a systemic problem! It’s stupid because the systemic problem of radicalism is never identified in isolation. It’s always either ignored (with Whites) or conflated with race or religious identity (with everyone else.) From the article:

On Tuesday morning, the NAACP offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado, came under attack when someone who is believed be a balding white man in his 40s dropped an explosive device that went off a few feet from the building. And on Wednesday morning, news broke of a horrifying mass shooting at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in France that left 12 dead and several wounded.

Both acts were motivated by radical ideology, but only one of them is being covered by the 24-hour news cycle. What gives?

According to Ebony senior digital editor Jamilah Lemieux, it’s because we rush to label attacks carried out by non-whites as “terrorism,” but when the perpetrator is white, we view those cases as isolated acts of violence.

From: World.Mic.


I grew up in Britain of the 80s, which means that terrorist always meant IRA.

I guess you could have the discussion about whether the Irish counted as whites in Britain of that period…

It’s probably an example of the same thing you’re discussing.


Ah, yes, the halcyon days of the 80s! A different breed of terrorist. No social media. Almost quaint, in a way.

I wonder how things would be playing out now if the IRA were as active on the terrorism front?

One involved the death of 12 people and the other involved damaged paintwork. One involved people shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic, the other involved an unknown man who may or may not have acted alone and who hasn’t given any explanation for their actions. In the article linked to by BB, even the president of the Denver chapter of the NAACP isn’t claiming to know the cause, although both the NAACP and FBI are saying that a hate crime was a definite possibility.

And on the loyalist side:

Apart from a number of trips to Northern Ireland, I didn’t really see much of the effects of terrorism (or at least, not as much as you might expect from someone living in Ireland). I did know one guy who had blown his hands off preparing a bomb to set off in an Orange Day parade and I remember the headmistress in the (Protestant) primary school I went to telling us that she wasn’t going to say if the IRA was wrong or right, it was a complicated issue and we just had to make up our own minds. My father would often travel between Ireland, N. Ireland and England in the 80s and 90s though, so he had some interesting stories of his experiences with police and other people. There seemed to be a lot of very normal people who disagreed with the methods and wanted peace, but still strongly disliked the UK government** and wanted a united Ireland - I can imagine there was a fairly large pool of republicans who could be radicalised.

** which was employing methods later used to justify the treatment of brown terrorists by countries like Israel and the US.


It probably sounds cynical and banal - but I suspect that “terrorism” has become an overused, overbroad term used to lump various violent (and even some non-violent) activities together for rhetorical and fund-raising purposes.

Is the goal of every killing or act destruction that of causing fear? I am quite skeptical. Why not “unauthorized demolition”? Or “counter-insurgency”? There are numerous terms which can be used to provide a more accurate description of events and their possible motivations. I am more interested in knowing the “what” and the “why” rather than being told what somebody presumes I should feel about it.

Also, I disagree with the recent prevalence of the term “radicalize”, for much the same reason why I dislike the use of another trendy word: “sexualize”. These both constitute a cheap trick to rob people of their agency. They imply that these are undesirable behaviors which are imposed on one by others, not something which one themselves naturally does. A person doesn’t need to be “converted” into “a radical” by others - they may honestly embody ideas which are simply radical to you, all on their own. Radical is a relative term. Likewise, their other pet term “extremism” - not unlike “alternative” presents itself as something which is defined not by its own character, but as a reaction to an assumed shared norm.

I am a self-identified radical, and I think it’s crucial that “radical” be recognized for its positive qualities - this is where revolutionary potential exists. By definition! Danger is often described in hegemonic terms, so non-statism (such is how I operate) is often characterized by outsiders as “violent” in terms of their institutions and plans for social order even if the principles and actions which realize such non-statism are completely pacifistic with regards to actual physical violence against actual people.


Might not be exactly the right place but, I’d like to suggest that anyone who hasn’t seen 4 Lions already does so…


I was watching some documentary where a supposed expert said “Terrorism is here to say, it’s never going anywhere” - talking about it like it’s some singular threat, like a tornado that can’t be controlled. That bothers me, because every terrorist act is a seperate incident, with its’ own motive. Even if it’s the work of some organization, it’s still people behind the attacks. We should spend more time figuring out th reasons behind the violence, not turn “terrorism” into a bogeyman,


I agree, but the bogeyman is what gets places such as the US to throw billions of dollars into oppressive programs. Trying to understand and reasonably address the actions of some relatively small groups of people would run against biases and not suggest the conspiratorial critical mass they use to put forth their own agenda. Many of these surveillance and lockdown tactics in the US have been argued unsuccessfully since the 80s-90s, looking for the right circumstances to finally put them over. This bogeyman is big business.

I think the earlier, more isolationist US approach to violence was far more effective. People only continue to push your buttons if they get a response.


Except we live in the United States, not France, and one is closer in proximity and relevance. It’s not even a bandwidth issue, because the coverage has basically been nonexistent for the NAACP bombing. Of course, terrorist attacks’ journalistic value are measured by their success, which is why the shoe and crotch bombers dominated the media, right?

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I don’t and many other commenters don’t either. In any case, I don’t see how it is more relevant than the events in France. An attack took place by well-armed people with unprecedented casualties for the area, by people claiming to be with Al Quaeda. This has sparked violence against Muslims across the country and other shootings in a country that does not have the same problem with guns as the US. There are currently two separate hostage situations going on in the area in and around Paris. This has the potential to fundamentally change relationships between Muslims and others in Europe. The NAACP story is also very important, but as far as I know, not much is known about the motivation and effectively no damage was caused.

No, but by just about every metric the Paris story is far more significant and more is known about the identity of the attackers and their stated motives, in addition to their demonstrated serious risk to the public.If the NAACP attacker had killed twelve people while wearing a white hood and shouting racist slogans, sparking shootings, racial tension and hostage takings in Colorado, while the attackers in Paris had broken a window with a failed DIY bomb and we were left to guess the reason, I would be quite disturbed that the media was focusing so much on France. You’re also right though, the media is more likely to pick up on a story that supports the narrative that the terrorism that is already in the news and is tearing multiple countries apart may affect the west. People are scared about that, and fear sells. As for the shoe and crotch bombers, they had the potential to blow up a plane if they had been successful, and it fit into the narrative that America needed more surveillance. The Colorado bomb wasn’t next to a door or window or near people. There’s bias in news reporting, but the stories are so different in terms of scale and significance that I don’t see what evidence they add to that fact.

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Which renders the particulars here less relevant to you, not less relevant to me, and does nothing to diminish the overall point. If no one in France covers the NAACP bombing, I don’t care. That no one in the United States is, is a little troubling. Especially with the racially-charged tensions surrounding police shootings. When someone places a bomb somewhere and it explodes, I’m sorry, but violence had entered that equation. That’s not something that was done for shits and giggles and fun.

You’re mischaracterizing the entire argument. The argument is not: No one should cover the events in France, or that other things should be given equal weight. The arguments are: 1) More attention needs to be paid to a growing trend of right wing radicalism. 2) The media needs to stop using a double standard that highly racializes the actions of a few people, especially when they’re not willing to do it to certain groups of people. My point isn’t that because shoe/crotch bombers made the news that this news is as big as the events in France. My point is that the media has traditionally never needed much to go on for something to take up their time. They make decisions about how their airtime is spent, and for substantively similar events, they’re happy to play up the “Muslims are coming!” angle.

Why? Because Muslims as a rule are bastards? Or because our framework for understanding this violence is flawed? The media is complicit in this, which is the point of the article.

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Here’s one of the main tweets in the article:

So ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and FOX cover the story (and there is other coverage I’ve seen online from other fairly major news orgs), but you claim that it isn’t being covered. In Paris, they infer the religion and ideology from the fact that the attackers were shouting about it in Arabic and the fact that the main suspects were already known to be religious extremists. In Colorado, they hardly know anything about the person and they don’t even know for sure that it was NAACP being targeted.

No, because some people will seize on this as evidence of the Islamification of Europe, making Muslims’ lives less safe and playing into the hands of a growing far right.

I think there’s a big problem with the reporting of both terrorism and things like school shootings by mostly white men. As Charlie Brooker’s video points out, we often inadvertently lionise terrorists by making them front page news, which encourages more people to do the same. The motives of the NAACP bomber and the Charlie Hebdo shooters are much less important than the ongoing efforts to form stronger communities.

On that vein, apparently someone on CNN called the Paris attackers ‘activists’. The only source you’ll find is Fox though…

Except that protesters against environmental destruction, capitalism, and/or police brutality can be labelled terrorists regardless of skin color. Remember the no-violence-involved terrorism charges against the RNC 8?

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It looks like it’s real, although her use of the term hardly suggested that she didn’t also see them as terrorists.

At the end of the day, in many ways I am more concerned about the actions of others in response to this than I am of the terrorists themselves. A small group of people caused a lot of damage, which is terrible. Now a large group of people are suspecting and often outright threatening innocent and peaceful people based on this. If they have their way, tougher immigration laws could mean the death of many more people. Even on the day the attacks were happening, Muslims who had nothing to do with this at all were threatened with deadly force:

The short version is - Talk about “terrorism” is always going to be sensationalistic, because “terrorism” is an inherently sensationalist term. There is really no way around that.


Posted on BoingBoing BBS:

Thanks for the humor, I needed that!

Since I’ve been aware enough to read/watch the news, “terrorist” has been a multi-color term. AFAIR the term came to be associated with Arab nationalism in the 70s (Yassir Arafat & Co.) and the IRA in the 70s and 80s. The mural shown by @jsroberts illustrates the common cause theme at this time. Germany also had some white people terrorist groups as well. There was some discussion back then that these groups happened to be Soviet clients and thus that the dominant form of terrorism could be understood as a foreign policy tool of the USSR.

As the IRA and German terrorists faded out, Arab terrorism continued and in the post Soviet era it morphed into a more general Islamic terrorism which has not abated in the least and has crossed color lines in its expansion. It is difficult to talk about this in the West. That is to say, when terrorism was about ideology of state with a more clear “enemy” (the USSR and its proxies) it was relatively easy to talk about without going against Western sensibilities. Now that the “enemy” is more nebulous and motivated by Islam it is hard to talk about since by our Western values, placing blame on a specific religious ideology most definitely offends Western sensibility. This is further complicated by the fact that many in the West continue to buy into the continued use of Soviet era fig leaf cover used by Arab & Islamic terror groups that they are some kind of freedom fighters against Western Imperialism.

@jsroberts It is of course a shame that a few incidents of destruction of property and anti-Arab graffiti have occurred in France in the last few days as shown in your info graphic. Not to play the victim card of “my group vs theirs” but perhaps French Arabs haven’t done so poorly in that the body count is zero as opposed to French Jews, for example with the Toulouse slayings a few years ago, the Brussels Jewish Museum shootings, any number or riots including attacks on synagogues, Jewish businesses and residences, the post Charlie Hebdo hostage taking and shootings of Jews in a Kosher supermarket (Kosher supermarket killer ‘told TV station he deliberately targeted Jews’). Despite the repeated tactics of violence by French Muslims & Arabs, personally I hope the body count from incidents against them post Charlie Hebdo remains zero.


Unfortunately, we had another data point from my neighbourhood this morning:

Windows were broken and an incendiary device was thrown into the offices, but nobody was hurt as it was outside of office hours.

[edited to add] The term terrorist is used to delegitimize some kinds of political activities…