Monday, January 4, 2016

Calling White Militias "Terrorists" Will Only Hurt Marginalized Groups

On January 2, a group of up to 150 western ranchers and militiamen, led by a member of the Bundy clan (the uncomfortably Mormon family that initiated 2014's standoff with government troops in Nevada), occupied a government building in Oregon to protest what they view as the loss of "the people's constitutional rights," which at its core boils down to a dispute over a western brand of libertarian ideology and federal land management policy. Nobody has been hurt yet, but the heavily armed ranchers seem to be settling in for the long haul, and I don't think any responsible person can guess how things will play out.

The social media response, however, has unfolded in predictable and often dispiriting ways. Obviously, right-wing cheerleading of the militias is often ignorant and distasteful, but I want to talk about responses from the left, since that's where I and most of my social circle come from. In particular, I want to address a damaging trend that I believe can only backfire and hurt the people it means to support. I'm talking about people condemning the militias as "terrorists" and contrasting the restrained government response to violent mistreatment faced by black and Muslim Americans. You probably know exactly what I'm talking about:

You can find various permutations of the same themes all over the place. At one level, these critiques are obviously true: America is a racist nation, and were the occupiers black or Muslim activists I have no doubt the reaction would be alarmist and possibly violent. We’d have round-the-clock media coverage of the standoff, with Very Serious pundits and politicians wondering with furrowed brows how to stem the rise of radicalism in marginalized communities. We'd have calls for Mosque surveillance and travel restrictions, or we’d be hearing about the Black Panthers, armed thugs, and the Ferguson Effect. Things have gotten out of hand, we'd be told, and These People need to be dealt with.

Given this reality, isn’t it fair that white militias get painted with the same brush? Isn't it obviously true that they're using violence and intimidation for political purposes? Isn't that exactly what terrorism is?

My response is: have you been asleep for the last fifteen years!? Have you not seen the consequences of the War on Terror?  We know that terrorism has been used to justify extraordinary, extralegal government authority. We know what the national security state has brought us: ubiquitous government spying. Militarized policing. Crackdowns on nonviolent protests. Furthermore we know who ends up feeling the consequences most severely: marginalized groups, labor organizers, left-wing activists, nonviolent drug users, and so on. Not to mention the millions of deaths and displacements our global fight against terrorism has caused. In most cases, the victims are black and brown. Does anyone really think labeling a few fringe white guys "terrorists" will alter any racist fundamentals in our society?

The War on Terror and its consequences

I think people on the left would generally agree that America’s response to terrorism has been varying degrees of disastrous. Many could offer offer nuanced takes on how overapplication of the "terrorist" label in the Middle East escalates violence and radicalizes populations. They might also be aware that police use anti-terror legislation to crack down on drug users, dissidents, and protestors.

But when it comes to these militias, what am I hearing? They're terrorists! Drone strike them! Set the National Guard on them! Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if my ideological cohorts actually want this or if they're just making a rhetorical point, but the effect is generally to justify the language and policies of the national security state. It becomes a call to fight injustice by spreading injustice, adding wrong upon wrong in hopes that somehow it will make a right. Then there's the fact that a violent confrontation is exactly what these militias want, and that cycles of violence and radicalization apply at home as much as abroad. But why worry about that when there's a great zinger to deliver?

The reality is, the word “terrorist” is not some benign label from the dictionary. It’s an ideological category, used by the state to justify massive invasions of privacy and aggressive, militarized violence. This should be reason enough to create suspicion, let alone the knowledge that most of the violence will ultimately fall on the marginalized and powerless.

Let's suppose that these militiamen are terrorists and not common criminals, which implies that the state should use extraordinary means to surveil and stop them. What happens next time? What if a union bars entry to a work site and stages a sit-in? Or if black activists protest at a police station? Or Muslim clerics denounce Israeli violence in Palestine? What if students illegally download a few movies in violation of a cybersecurity law? But those are different, you protest! And you're correct, they are different. Do you think the state, which has assumed ever-increasing power to fight terrorism, will care? It has already treated hackers, environmentalists, Occupy Wall Street, and #BlackLivesMatter as terrorists. Maybe you trust the Obama administration to do the right thing. Do you trust the next Republican president with the same kind of authority?

How about this guy?

I hope I've made the case that calling people “terrorists” has consequences beyond the desire for ideological point-scoring. To respond to the meme at the beginning of this post, the proper argument is not that the national card should be called out against these militias, but that it should not have been called out in Ferguson and Baltimore. Maybe the people sharing it feel that way, but that's not at all clear based on the language they're using.

So what should liberals be arguing? Certainly, these people in Oregon shouldn’t be allowed to get away with anything. Whatever laws they’re breaking—trespassing, intimidation, assault—should be tried in the courts after this situation is diffused as peacefully as possible, and the state should not be the party that initiates any violence. It might be a long and unsatisfying process. Just remember, the apparatus of anti-terrorism, like the forces it claims to fight, disdains peace and courts by its very nature. Is that what we want?

Liberals ought to push back hard against the national security state, whether it's perpetuated by Democrats or Republicans. We should be aware of anti-terror policies and hold politicians accountable for their bad effects. And we should continue to be outraged that state violence disproportionately affects minority communities. As we've learned, the rule of law means little when police can kill innocent people without consequence.

Pointing out hypocrisy in sarcastic or self-satisfied Facebook posts might be cathartic (God knows I do it plenty myself), but it's not helpful when its ultimate effect is to validate the Dick Cheneys of the world. There are violent, reactionary forces in American society, forces that propagate racist, and colonialist policies in the name of protection and order. Let’s not fight them by giving them the rope they’ll use to hang us.


  1. I'm old enough to have watched the effectiveness of non-violent civil disobedience in changing policy during the late 60's and early 70's. But to me, the moment that they announced that they were armed - and the potential for violence raised it's ugly head - they became terrorists.

  2. Unfortunately, larryco_, that's exactly the attitude I'm writing about here. I'm not arguing against armed protest, I'm arguing against applying the label in a way that grants unaccountable power. The state's capacity for violence is far greater than any particular militia or group of activists.

  3. I am far to the right of you, but I definitely agree that the anti-terrorist rhetoric and action against domestic groups is unhelpful. Domestic groups that are protesting, demonstrating and even rioting should be handled as completely separate from international terrorists.
    Unfortunately, many on the left are the first to try to blur the line. The Oregon rancher sit-in can be waited out for months with virtually no harm done if it continues as it has been going so far. Lower news coverage and boredom may lead to an easy, peaceful solution (I hope). Protesters and rioters on busy city streets are much more dangerous, because they are in a crowded urban area. If they can be corralled somehow into a limited area, keep on protesting.

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