Lowering the bar for white people instead of raising the bar for non-whites is the wrong approach for equality.
In the wake of the South Carolina shootings, the US government has showed it is capable of swift action. Within days, the incident was labeled a hate crime, which allows prosecutors to impose tougher penalties on Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old who ended the lives of nine African Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The waves of support and anger flowing from the killings made quick work of a long-standing controversy. The southern states that have, up to now, continued to use the Confederate flag as displays of “heritage” have called for replacements. Major retailers have taken the step of banning all merchandise bearing the flag.
But this victory of public opinion over a symbol threatens to become only a symbolic victory as the outcry is used to push for more restraints on civil liberties. And the chief mechanism for affecting these more restrictive measures is the “terrorist” label, which masks, in this case, a conflation between arguments for equality and those that would otherwise cut against enabling governmental agency.
In the age of the Internet—and especially over the past year—there has been a growing sense of racial injustice. Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray are just two of the many names of non-whites suffering abuse at the hands of local police. But there is another long-standing prejudice that calls for the “terrorist” label’s application ignore.
“Muslim-looking” people, including Latin Americans, have frequently suffered at the hands of the federally-sanctioned “racial-profiling” policy. For these groups of people, the “terrorist” label has been used to justify indefinite detention, rendition, absence of due process and even torture. More widely, governmental agencies have justified warrantless wiretaps, mass data collection and other invasions of individual information—against all peoples—under the banner of “terrorism.”
It is easy to understand why the call for the “terrorist” label to apply went up: people are angry, and justifiably so. But to call for the label to apply in the case of Roof is the wrong approach to equality. It is, effectively, an argument to lower the bar for white people, instead of arguing to raise the bar for non-whites.
Here is an example of this double-standard from The New Yorker. In its June 29 issue, the call for the “terrorist” label to apply went specifically to the Patriot Act’s language of “coercion.” But just weeks earlier, in a “Letter From Norway,” there was discussion of the 2011 Utoya massacre that involved a more convincing plea: to understand extremism from the inside out; to look at its sources in the strange, individuated and deeply psychological nature, and in the failure of human relationships. In other words, in the moment and perhaps under the weight of what they were expected to say, even the usually cool, collected New Yorker became overheated.
This heated argument has other glaring holes that the Norway article reveals. For example. although affiliated with an ideology, an extremist’s agenda is largely incoherent. The act of killing itself, although specific in its victims, is a generalized kind of performance—it is the attempt of a narcissist who conceives himself as voiceless doing something unthinkable, in order to make others hear him. It comes from a desolate, desperate point of view.
To coerce, on the other hand, one needs to aim for some specific political point—like Palestinian nationalism of the 1970s. Hate is more bland and, as Sartre pointed out in Jew and Anti-Semite, it has no real engagement with the conversation, and thus nothing to say.
Those arguments aside, the parallel between local and national police agencies should be fleshed out to fully appreciate what a wider adoption of the “terrorist” label might mean. For “Muslim-looking” peoples, it has meant being spied upon and arrested without explanation, often without recourse to the courts. For those arrested within 100 miles of a border or on a military base, it means foregoing all the rights afforded by the US Constitution. Some have been killed, effectively executed without a hearing. Some have even been detained, despite being cleared of any wrongdoing—to prevent reprisal for the improper arrest.
Is a wider swath of the population ready to accept this treatment? Do people really want a more cumbersome process for administering justice, when the courts are already backlogged? And what of the falsely accused? Each of these procedural impediments makes it harder to clear one’s name.
The truth is the police—in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and even at pool parties in Texas—impose fear on a more regular basis than any single 20-year-old could. The truth is the US military—around the world, but in Muslim-majority countries in particular—imposes a more pointed and openly hostile fear.
Equality is a valuable idea, and it is something we must work toward together. But to apply the “terrorist” label more widely is to place us all within the sights of an even larger, more slowly-moving police power that has no better record when it comes to injustices against non-whites.
Instead, let arguments for equality focus on the real harbingers of fear in our lives: the corporations and governments that amass great power and are all too willing to use it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.