After Dr. George Tiller was gunned down last Sunday, I, among others, declared his murder an act of terrorism. Plenty of folks are labeling yesterday’s murder at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum terrorism as well. The alleged gunman, James W. von Brunn, is known to authorities as a white supremacist. He spent over six years in federal prison for pulling out a sawed-off shotgun at the Federal Reserve Board headquarters in 1981, threatening to take members of the Board hostage.
In April of this year, the Department of Homeland Security released a report warning of the potential threat posed by rightwing extremist groups.
[R]ightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.
Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
In light of the DHS report, many lefties – myself included – insist that the violence of the past two weeks is indeed terrorism, and should be treated as such. Ann at Feministing echoed that sentiment yesterday, calling the Holocaust Museum shooting an act of domestic terrorism.
The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” I would argue that Tiller’s murder was absolutely an attempt at coercion:
Coerce the clinic to close (happened this week); coerce abortion-seeking women into giving birth (what else will his hypothetic patients do?); coerce potential abortion providers away from the practice; and coerce the U.S. to place further restrictions on abortion or outlaw it completely. There is no question that Tiller’s murder qualifies as an act of terrorism, according to its definition.
But a commenter on Ann’s post points out that:
When you use the word [terrorism] you endorse the same logic that allowed the right wing to call anti-war demonstrations outside of a recruiting station in DC “terrorism” and the recent G20 and then IMF/World Bank protests “terrorism”.
She says she was threatened with a terrorism charge once, when she was affiliated with a feminist group that put up anti-rape graffiti on a college campus. She continued:
The language of terrorism is specifically designed to allow the state to maintain its own violence. We use the word to talk about single-incident, spectacular (not in the sense of awesome, but in the sense of creating a spectacle) events carried out by non-state actors, and we’re allowed to argue about the incident-by-incident use of the word, but we’re strictly verboten from using it to talk about real, systemic violence.
Hmpf. Well that gave me pause. I really want to use the word “terrorist” in the case of James W. von Brunn. This is probably because I am radically opposed to his politics, but also because he used direct violence against his targets. Would it be better described as a hate crime? I am not sure what sort of action von Brunn was trying to coerce yesterday, if any. He may have been acting out of a desire to bring about certain “social objectives.” Or perhaps he just decided he needed to do something big, as he’s nearly 90 and will probably die soon.
Since I sympathize with anti-war demonstrators and anti-globalization protesters and fellow feminists, I flinch when such groups are labeled terrorists for engaging in activities that do not physically harm other people. Additionally, whilst I oppose “harsh interrogation techniques,” as used against terror suspects in U.S. custody, my reaction upon hearing about Tiller and the Holocaust Museum was waterboard the fuckers. And no, I don’t really support waterboarding anyone, but it’s my natural reaction to categorize “the other side” as terrorists and “my side” as freedom fighters. Judging by the disparate reactions to these crimes from the right and the left, and the reactions that followed 9/11, I am not the only one. Guantanamo prisoners aren’t “my side,” but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?
As the DHS report details, President Obama’s election makes the armed insurgency on the far right feel they are losing power. Their extremism is made more frightening by the fact that they have the support of one of our two major political parties and at least one major “news” network, both of which seem intent upon amplifying the paranoid, bigoted fervor. I think they pose more of a threat to our safety than any Muslim jihadist or environmentalist ever could.