This week, we watched the awful and cowardly vehicular attack in New York City that killed eight and injured 11 and fell into a familiar discourse surrounding terrorism in America.
The terror attack committed by Sayfullo Saipov was intentional, deliberate and diabolical; it resonates with our nation’s conventional wisdom about how terrorism works in the 21st century. It also pushes the narrative that terrorism is exclusively perpetrated by extremists who subscribe to some radical iteration of the Muslim faith.
Think about it: What don’t we know about Sayfullo Saipov?
This week, I asked a diverse group of students what has been the deadliest terror attack over the last year. Many students were quick to point to the Manchester UK bombing or the truck attack in Spain – awful acts of terror that occurred this past summer. No one mentioned or even barely knew of the truck bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia – an act of terror that resulted in a least 300 deaths and over 500 total casualties. This is the worst terror attack anywhere in the world for several years. But it doesn’t “count” in the same way that acts of terror count here because it happened “over there” and because the overwhelming majority of this attack’s victims were Somalian/African – not American and not European.
No one mentioned Stephen Paddock who murdered 58 Americans and injured hundreds more at a country music festival in Las Vegas last month. You don’t have to speak to any of the survivors of this bloody massacre to understand that Mr. Paddock intentionally terrorized thousands in his brutal premeditated attack for which investigators have yet to determine a motive. Known motive or not, Mr. Paddock’s crimes have not been placed in the context of the steady stream of mass murderers who all happen to be men and many of whom happen to be white. His bloody massacre of dozens has not generated calls for attribution. On what organization’s or which religion’s behalf did Mr. Paddock so callously murder his fellow citizens?
For a few minutes though, Americans focused once again on the common sense gun control debate. Many more even called for the outlawing of “bump stocks” – the device that enabled Mr. Paddock to murder Americans with military precision and devastation. Yet somehow those public discussions are now in our distant past as manufacturers continue to make and sell bump stocks and there is still not a peep about addressing these kinds of incidents as the national crisis in terror that they obviously represent.
Earlier this week, Trump called for the Saipov’s execution, summarily dismissing the federal criminal justice apparatus in favor of detention in the Guantanamo Bay prison and some nebulous rush to the death penalty. (He has since walked that comment back.) This kind of autocratic behavior is in itself a global breeding ground for terrorism and the United States criminal and judicial processes are adversely impacted by unmeasured ignorant presidential statements – the very definition of the Trump presidency.
Trump also called for the immediate end to the diversity visa lottery, a program Saipov used to enter the U.S. from Uzbekistan.
There were no policy recommendations from the administration following Paddock’s rampage in Vegas – and we all know why.
Ask yourself: Is the environment we live in today really conducive for a honest and holistic approach to terrorism in America?
An American man walked into a Walmart in Colorado this week and began to randomly shoot patrons. Everyone in that store was terrorized, but will the American media or the American government consider this incident an act of terror? It seems unlikely. The easiest way for most Americans to conceptualize terror is to think of it exclusively as the “other” – in this case an Islamic other – who perpetrates acts of terror against Americans or Europeans.
The terrorist vehicular attack in New York City was a tragic event, perpetrated by a maniacal person. But consider the family of Heather Heyer who was brutally murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville this past summer. The perpetrator of that act was also engaged in a campaign of terror; he also subscribed to radical groups of extremists in this case in our nation. But somehow the president of the United States claimed that he marched amongst “very fine people.”
This president’s current Chief of Staff referred to the Confederate general (whose statue was at the center of the violence in Charlottesville) as an honorable man. This honorable man owned human beings, some of whom may have been ancestors of Black American citizens.
The terror from that peculiar institution stills dogs us to this day.
If we’re are going to reckon with acts of terror as a nation than we must (re)consider what terrorism actually is. If its only “terror” when a certain type of person perpetrates an awful act of violence, then we will continue to lie to ourselves about the greater threat of terror that lives and breaths organically in our nation.
We stand to ignore the more deadly threat of hate and social alienation that is homegrown simply because it is easer to point the finger at a Muslim other rather than taking a good long hard look into our national mirror.
Dr. James Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, and is a contributor of MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson.