Robert L Dear is suspected of first degree murder following a shooting at an abortion clinic in Colorado last week
Robert L Dear is suspected of first degree murder following a shooting at an abortion clinic in Colorado last week

Why doesn't the US call white people terrorists?

FOLLOWING two mass shootings in the US in recent weeks by white suspects, there has been increasing debate as to why the alleged perpetrators have not been labelled "terrorists".

Robert Lewis Dear, who is accused of killing three people at an abortion clinic in Colorado, and four men accused of shooting five people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis have appeared in court this week.

While Dear is suspected of first degree murder, the other four have been charged with a combination of second-degree riot and second-degree assault.

But unlike the Boston bombers, who killed three at the city's marathon in 2013, or the attackers in Paris - all of whom were Muslim - there has been a distinct lack of the word "terrorist" used by law enforcement or by the media in relation to the attacks.

This has already gained attention, and caused frustration in the US, with people pointing out the differences in media coverage:

Abed Ayoud, the legal and policy director for Washington DC-based thinktank the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee explained he was "surprised" and "disappointed" at the lack of the use of the word "terror" in relation to the attacks:

"The only time the word terrorism or terrorist is used is when the perpetrator happens to be an Arab or a Muslim," he said.

"When the perpetrator happens to be a white American then the terminology is changed. So if it's a white person then often we will hear that they have mental issues, they are troubled, different descriptions for their mental state."

 

For context, here is how the FBI defines terrorism:

The unlawful use of force or 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.

Ayoud believes that both the Planned Parenthood shooting and the Black Lives Matter attack can be described as politically- or racially-motivated.

As journalist Jamil Smith explained on the New Republic last week, in reference to the Black Lives Matter shooting:

"This is what terrorism looks like. This is the function that it performs.

"Remember that as we are warned not to travel abroad and told to fear Syrian refugees more than our white American neighbours with guns and a grievance.

And as this tweet, which unfortunately seems to be re-shared every few months, shows, the narrative is all too predictable:
 


Ayoud pointed to Timothy McVeigh, the "Oklahoma bomber" who killed 168 people in 1995, as possibly the only case where a white person has been labelled a terrorist, and that discourse has changed since 9/11.

"Now we are living in a different time, a different era: where the terms 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' have been politicised and that's the difference.

"Had the Timothy McVeigh bombing happened today, he probably would have some folks who refused to call it a terrorist attack.

"He probably would have some folks who would say that he was mentally challenged or his mental capacity was not all there or he's troubled.

"We've heard those lines with the theatre shooting, we've heard that with Dylann Roof - the individual who killed nine people at a church in Charleston.

Ayoud pointed out that even in US courtrooms, while specific terrorism charges are rare, the use of the words "terror" or "terrorist" are often used by prosecutors when defendants are Muslims but not when they are white.

Ultimately he believes that we need to stop politicising the terms of "terrorist" and "terrorism" and start judging each incident on a case by case basis.

It is clear how these individuals are talked about, if you watch how they are responded to - it's clear that if an individual happens to be white and they commit a mass shooting, such as Sandy Hook, the term that needs to be used is not being used - they are terrorists and that is terrorism.



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