I’m not a fan of the US cultural habit of turning political turmoil in faraway lands into a gawkworthy spectator sport. I came to this realization in the aftermath of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, as it gradually dawned on me that sheltered, largely clueless people who had no stake in…
As we have been writing about, in Puerto Rico protests continue against rising fees in the university system but there are also protests against the violence being used against students and journalist attempting to do their jobs and cover the struggle.
Yesterday about 30 students were arrested during acts of civil disobedience carried out by the colonial Capitol Building. Originally students sought to present a plan whereby the Govt would allocate $50M from a surplus fund, eliminating the need for the $800 fees that sparked this latest round of protests. Riot police said they were forced to use tear gas because some of the hundreds of students that were protesting were throwing rocks.
Today I began reading “By Any Means Necessary”, a collection of interviews and speeches from the last year of the life of Malcolm X. Each page reaffirms his position at the top of my “Men I Wish to Emulate” list.
Jared Lee Loughner allegedly tried to assassinate Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday. In the wake of the attack, the 22-year-old Loughner has been called everything from “crazed” to “unhinged.” What he’s not been called, however, at least by the media, is a terrorist.
According to the United States Law Code, terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” New evidence alleges that Loughner possibly planned for years to assassinate Giffords, a prominent politician. Sounds a lot like terrorism to me. But a whole host of major media outlets seem to disagree.
The Wall Street Journal today says Loughner “raged against the government” and “discussed terrorism,” which, when you actually think about it, is a vague, nearly meaningless sentence (who hasn’t discussed terrorism in the past decade?). In the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the main story is that Loughner was denied entry into the military because he failed a drug test, while the only talk of terrorism comes in a confusing quote from a blog posting from Loughner himself: “If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem.” And, in the Los Angeles Times’ lead story on Loughner today, the word “terror” doesn’t appear once.
Compare this nebulous coverage to that on Nidal Hasan in November 2009. If you’ll remember, Hasan is the only suspect in the Fort Hood shooting in Texas that left 13 people dead and 30 more wounded. Hasan is also Muslim, a fact every news outlet won’t let you forget, while also speculating about his terrorist ties.
Four days after the attack on Fort Hood, the Wall Street Journal published two stories suggesting that Hasan was a terrorist, one of which included the assertion that it was a terrorist act because Hasan spoke Arabic while he shot. The Los Angeles Times spoke to counterterrorism experts for this piece on Hasan. And, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, blogger Kyle Wingfield actually gave credence to a Forbes argument claiming that Hasan “went Muslim.”
Some will argue that Hasan’s terrorist intentions were proved by communications he had with radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki, but, in fact, experts who reviewed the pair’s e-mail exchange deemed it totally innocuous.
It should be noted that the FBI Director Robert Mueller has said he’s not ruling out terrorism charges against Loughner, but nothing’s certain yet. And today in Dubai, Hillary Clinton called Loughner an “extremist,” though, like the media, she stopped short of calling him a terrorist. From the sidelines, the message this sends is pretty obvious and very insidious: When a white man executes a political attack, he’s likely crazy; when it’s a Muslim doing the shooting, he’s likely a terrorist.
This came up also with the guy who flew his plane into the IRS building, who was allowed the complexity of a guy whose patriotism had been disappointed. I was actually interested in how that was framed, because it was allowed in the media to be a little more complex than when things like this happen. And that’s important, because this is complex. And it just keeps happening with no resolutions, until we can start talking about things that are going on in ways that aren’t so two-dimensional.
The word “terrorist” has always been a politicized word, and its current usage is also racialized. As the cliche goes, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. It is a term of propaganda, not of technical specificity. It is accompanied by an opposing propaganda term, “moderate”, which denotes persons from the same group as “the terrorists” but who are willing to comply and “be reasonable”.
If a proper, literal, non-propagandistic definition were actually applied to the word “terrorist”, the word would need to be applied first and foremost to US empire, which deploys coercive political violence with impunity in pursuit of domination and wealth. Chomsky writes of a distinction between “retail terrorism” (from below) and “wholesale terrorism” (from above). Wholesale terrorism is large-scale militarized political violence legitimized by governments, flags, seals, anthems, constitutions, legislatures, and of course overwhelming propaganda. Retail terrorism blows up a cafe; wholesale terrorism blows up a country.
Democratic and Republican politicians and pundits alike have advocated and pursued imperialist wars overseas for at least the past century. What is war if not the ultimate assertion that violence is the answer to political differences? Can a nation which has conducted over 50 foreign military interventions in the past half-century, including multiple overthrows of democratic governments and countless political assassinations, possibly claim to renounce political violence? Can a country currently engaged in two imperialist wars truly claim to abhor political violence? Can a society which accepts the regular killing of unnamed enemies and their families, with utter impunity, by aerial drone, truly claim to oppose political violence? Can a government which has two million of its citizens locked up at gunpoint truly claim to embrace civil discourse over rule of force?
None of this is to downplay the horrific shootings in Tucson. Certainly, it’s been a while since a national US politician was assassinated (I always had my suspicions about what happened to Paul Wellstone, but I’ll leave that alone). But it also seems to me that many US citizens might do well to emerge from a state of denial about the fundamentally violent nature of their society, government, and political system. People are playing for keeps, it’s not an online game. Even when it’s not as shocking as a mass shooting or a bullet to the head; even when it’s just the slow crushing grind of systemic oppression and exploitation; political violence is not an abberation, it’s the norm.