Letter to the editor: “Terrorism”

FBI Headquarters
The J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Monday was a busy day. Since I don’t have a smart phone, I was forced to get my news about the bombings in Boston second-hand. I asked a classmate if there had been any leads as to who had been behind the bombings. My informant replied that it was suspected that the bombing was an act of terrorism. I thought that answer was curious because it said nothing at all about the bombing or the bomber. However, it may have said a lot about us.

To those of us of limited experience, limited vocabularies, or limited faculties, “terrorism” is synonymous with “Islamic extremism,” which is another catchall used by the media to refer to something complicated which requires further explanation. For my generation, but probably all of the American public, this connotation is rooted in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but we see the rhetoric everywhere, for example, in the current occupation of Palestine by the Israelis. We are complacent in the media’s continual portrayal of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli oppression as “terrorism,” while the acts of the Israeli occupiers, which are even more coercive and destructive of innocent human life, are presented as the official counter-terrorist protocol of a legitimate Government. It is right and good that the very same acts can be viewed as either acts of evil, or righteous self-defense, depending on who commits that act. We pay for Israeli terrorism so it would be a pity to see it badmouthed.

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” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). In an article on the bombing in Boston, Fox News criticized President Obama for his failure to call a spade a spade. “‘When multiple devices go off, that’s an act of terrorism,’ a senior administration official told Fox News, just moments after President Obama delivered a statement to the nation and did not use the word ‘terror’ (though “terror” was used as a descriptor in President Obama’s statements this morning). The official stressed that it was unclear whether a foreign entity like Al Qaeda was behind it….”

Equally unclear was whether the bombing is a terrorist attack at all, because without a clue as to who the bomber is, it is hard to say much about why they planted and detonated their bombs. Yet we are drawn to call the bombing in Boston “terrorism”. Why? Because we need to categorize the atrocity, we need it to be motivated, and we need that motivation to be an affront against us and our way of life. Why? So that we can be indignant. So that we can tell that person to go to hell. We are not the problem.

I remember when Trayvon Martin was killed, Iowa City had a big rally in the Ped-Mall to show solidarity with the Martin family and all victims of racially motivated violence. The people of Iowa City gathered to talk bad about those other people, those bad people, those racist people not like us who had caused the death of this young man or had otherwise prevented justice from being done. A speaker would say, “Those racist people out there are bad.” And we would all clap in approval of our own righteousness. I remember a young black man was one of many young black men and women to speak that day. This young man was handed the microphone and began his statement saying, “My name is…. I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. I moved to Iowa City with my family. I didn’t really know what racism was until I came to Iowa City.” There was a very different reaction to this statement. People clapped, but the applause faded unusually as more people comprehended the statement. We did not feel righteous. Some may have felt indignant. All there was to applaud was the young man’s candor. There was a lot to think about.

When we call the Boston Marathon bombing “terrorism” before we know who was responsible for it or their motivations, we openly jump to the conclusion that someone is so displeased with our way of life that they feel compelled to indiscriminately kill us. This is a very curious thing to say, because there is not any reason to say it. It makes much less sense than saying that we do not know who planted those bombs or why they did it, because that at least, is true.

In the upcoming days we may find out who was responsible for the bombings at the Boston Marathon. We may learn of their motivations and if they do not make sense we will call them the acts of a madman. If the motivation is political or social we will say it was an act of terrorism. We will call it an affront to our way of life and we will be indignant. We will defend our way of life. We will persist in that way of life, without reflection, in honor of those who died in its name. We will call a spade a spade. We will see evil and spit in its face. We will call it ‘other.’ We will be the righteous ones. We will applaud every condemnation of the act. We will neither think, nor speak of any evil here at home. And when someone brings it up, we will applaud, awkwardly, and wait until it is no longer his turn to speak.