Palestinian rap group DAM’s popular song, “Meen Irhabi?” (Who’s a Terrorist?”) questions the very definition of that term, as it highlights the political bias behind its use: Palestinians are defending their stolen land, yet get labelled “terrorists” by Israelis who act as “witness, lawyer and judge” over them. Videos of the song either show the group performing live, or are montages of scenes of Israeli violence against Palestinians—not the other way around—as the trio repeats the questioning of the term, which is of course generally applied to Palestinians, not the Israeli soldiers, nor the violent armed settlers depicted in the videos.
“Meen Irhabi” kept coming to my mind over the past couple of weeks—since the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, followed by the shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas and, less than twenty-four hours later, another massacre in Dayton, Ohio. Yes, we are living in a state of terror, as no place seems safe from the crosshairs of armed white supremacists. But then again when, in its entire history, has this country been safe for people of color? Every American generation has had its Sandra Bland, its Eric Garner, its Standing Rock, ND and Ferguson, MI. From Mankato to Wounded Knee, most massacres have been committed by the government, not “lone wolves” with mental challenges. It is the nature of settler-colonial societies to be violent. Similarly, every Palestinian generation since al Nakba has had its Deir Yassin, its Jenin, its Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, where the boundaries between an individual “mass murderer” and the government soldiers are totally blurred.
And of course, as happens after every mass shooting, social media is abuzz with memes and graphs explaining that this is terrorism, even though it is not being called so by the mainstream, since the killers in these cases are white. Even Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has equated white supremacy with domestic terrorism, saying the racist ideology is a threat “in the same way that foreign terrorism threatens our people.”
One needs to be cautious of the calls for designating white nationalist mass killers as “terrorists too,” because putting white supremacists in the same category as “terrorists,” that selective construct hitherto reserved for people of color, does not address the racism that allows the mainstream to turn a blind eye to its own violence,.
While it is tempting to point the finger at the likes of Dylann Roof, Patrick Crusius, and Connor Betts, and call them terrorists, let us remember that they are simply amplifying official social norms and government policy, a policy that has always been racist — from the genocide of the Indigenous people to the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, to the internment of the Japanese Americans, and the criminal justice system, from its inception to the present day. These white killers are simply rogue militiamen magnifying, rather than challenging, the country’s official racism. Even if they are trespassing over the state’s “monopoly on violence,” to use Max Weber’s concept that the state alone has a legal right to enact violence on its citizens, these white supremacists are still enacting the very racist violence the state has long engaged in, and continues to engage in to this day. This is becoming more obvious with the Trump Administration’s quasi-official embrace of white nationalism, and its interest in criminalizing popular opposition to the country’s dive into fascism, by designating antifa protestors a “major organization of terror.”
Just as there is an understanding amongst most progressive Americans that Israeli settlers are simply the rogue manifestation of Israel’s official policy of expansionism and land theft, so we must understand that white killers are also a rogue manifestation of the US government’s inherent white nationalism.
As we denounce today’s militant white supremacists, we need to associate it with its source — violent settler-colonialism. The United States has a long history of racism in the service of a white nation, as evidenced in its treatment of communities of color throughout the existence of this country. People of color are no more in the crosshairs of white supremacist violence today than we were under the conquest of “the West” (of Europe, of course), under slavery and the runaway slave patrols, under Jim Crow, under the Chinese Exclusion Act and NSEERs, all of which were “legal,” or protected by the government–just as Israeli settlers are protected by the Israeli army.
Terrorism, on the other hand, is criminalized counter-discourse: terrorists do not have the right to bear arms, and they are not acting out the government’s policies, albeit in an unregulated manner. “Terrorism” is a loaded term that has mostly been used to dismiss the struggles for human rights that people oppressed by a country’s government engage in (which is why, when Palestinians have a public platform, they are routinely asked to “denounce terrorism.”) Placing hate-filled supremacist mass killers inspired by their government in the same category as justice-seeking fighters does not address the violence of settler-colonialism, as it presents these killers as exceptional, rather than emblematic of their society. Simply, it may be time for well-meaning anti-racists to stop using the term “terrorism,” vague and inaccurate as it is, with its racist baggage, and instead show how white mass murderers reflect the society that created them, and which they presume to protect.